15 January 2016

Suspend your disbelief: women can shine as Shakespeare’s heroes


Reading Daniel Hannan’s piece in response to the announced aspiration of Emma Rice, the incoming Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, to achieve “parity” in terms of male/female casting of Shakespeare’s plays, in which he outlines his difficulties with women playing male characters in Shakespeare’s plays, I found myself experiencing a familiar sinking feeling. It’s the same feeling I get when I go to a meeting, taking a male assistant with me, and someone at the meeting assumes that my assistant is the Director and I am his assistant. It’s the same feeling I got when I read that out of 50 conductors at last year’s BBC Proms only 2 were women, and that women directed just 9% of top-grossing Hollywood films in 2015. It is also, pertinently, the same feeling I got when I heard last year that the great actor David Suchet was to play Lady Bracknell in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest in the West End.

Let’s start with plays. Playwrights write characters. They write people. And when the play is put on, it is done so within the strictures of the time. Thus, when Euripides was writing he knew that his cast was limited to three speaking characters on stage at any one time, and a chorus of about fifteen – all of whom were men, and all of whom would be wearing masks, but that didn’t stop him creating razor-sharp, believable human characters. When Shakespeare was writing his plays he was fully aware that his female characters would be performed by young men/boys and that the only lighting he had available for any sort of effect was sunlight, candle or torchlight but that didn’t hold him back. The 17thC playwright Aphra Behn was one of the first playwrights who knew that her female characters would be portrayed by actresses rather than actors but her women aren’t more believable for that, and when Lucy Prebble (Enron, The Effect) is writing she is aware that directors and designers have a thrilling array of complex technical facilities at their disposal, and a huge pool of talented actors of both sexes to call upon when casting, but none of that would matter if her characters were thinly drawn.

No great playwright is “limited” by the any constraint of their time, just as they are not “freed” by technical ingenuity. The technical capacities of a theatre, and the social mores of an era do not affect a great playwright’s ability to create believable, recognisable, fascinating characters any more than does the weather outside. Sophocles and Webster didn’t cut corners when creating Antigone and the Duchess of Malfi, just as Caryl Churchill and Laura Wade don’t create two-dimensional male characters because their imaginations find it impossible to explore the territory beyond their own experience as women.

Then there is the Director – the main culprit in Hannan’s eyes of obfuscating great drama by means of “prejudicial” artistic decisions. The main job of the theatre Director is to bring the play as fully to life as possible. To ensure that the play’s characters live and breathe, and that the narrative unfolds clearly and at pace, and that dramatic tension is maintained throughout – and how one does this is a matter of personal taste. There may be particular aspects of a play that one wants to emphasise, and particular aspects of each character that one wants to see more clearly. So, the Director works with a Designer to create the physical world of the play – which may or may not include technical wizardry – and with a Casting Director to find the actors that will people that world and embody the characters that the playwright has created. At one end of the contemporary spectrum we have Ivan Hove’s pared-down View From A Bridge at the Young Vic (and in the West End), while at the other end we have the technically sophisticated Wonder.land at the National Theatre – and somewhere in the middle we have extraordinary theatrical events such as War Horse in which a living, breathing full-sized horse is portrayed by three (visible) actors and various bits of canvas and leather.

The point of saying all of this is that the act of watching a play requires adopting the mental attitude coined by the poet Coleridge as the “suspension of disbelief”. It did so in the blinding sunlight of Ancient Athens, and it does so now. No one believed that the central character in Aristophanes’ Frogs was really the god Dionysus, just as no one believes that the horse on stage at the New London Theatre is actually a horse, or that Desdemona is really dead after Othello has put a pillow over her face. We know it’s all acting. We know we’re not really in Elsinore when we watch Hamlet, and we don’t worry that Sarah and Sky can break into song with full orchestral accompaniment when we’re watching Guys and Dolls. We know theatre is just an elaborate game of “Let’s Pretend” and we love it for that.

When Daniel Hannan, rather patronisingly to my mind, says that it is beyond him that the same brain created Viola and Olivia, Imogen and Isabella, Goneril and Gertrude, Miranda and Mistress Quickly, I find myself wondering if it’s equally beyond him that, for instance, George Eliot should be the single creator of the Rev Causabon, Will Ladislaw, Adam Bede, Tom Tulliver and Philip Wakem. And when it comes to his dislike of women taking male roles in Shakespeare, I find myself unable to comprehend the fact that the same man that has a problem with the idea of a woman playing the Duke of Gloucester in Lear also claims that “the best Shakespeare company around at the moment is Edward Hall’s all-male troupe, Propeller”. It’s all very confusing.

I have read and re-read Hannan’s piece, and I can’t see that at root Hannan’s problem is anything more than a distaste for women playing men in productions of Shakespeare. He just doesn’t like it, because there is a part of him that believes that men are just a bit more important than women, a bit better, and that as such, while the actors of Propellor can play Cleopatra, Gertrude and Juliet till the cows come home, he can’t stomach a woman playing a Shakespearean man. He fills his piece up with talk about wanting to “let the characters breathe”, and instructions to Directors not to tie the world’s finest drama to “the corset of your prejudice”, but in the end all is he saying is that he personally just doesn’t like it. He doesn’t mind sitting in a dark room near Smithfield market being asked to imagine by the Chorus that he is about to behold the “vasty fields of France”, he doesn’t mind noticing that the actor playing Laertes is still breathing after he’s been killed, he doesn’t even mind that Orlando can’t see that Ganymede’s resemblance to the lovely Rosalind is more than a passing one. No, all of this he can cope with. But ask him to watch a woman playing a middle-aged man who has his eyes plucked out on stage, and it tells me everything I need to know about Hannan’s prejudice that his biggest problem will not be that the two bloodied blobs thrown down onto the stage by the Duke of Cornwall are probably actually Chinese lychees, but that somewhere under the Duke of Gloucester’s robes is lurking a pair of breasts.

I say bring it on, Emma Rice. Let’s see some parity in the casting of Shakespeare’s plays. There are far too many brilliant actresses in this country to limit them to playing someone’s wife, someone’s mother and someone else’s mistress. Let’s see them playing the Kings and Emperors, the Generals and the soldiers. Let’s suspend our disbelief, overcome our prejudices and accept that none of it is real, and that all you need to play any of Shakespeare’s character – other than have the talent required –  is to be a human being.

Fiona Laird is Theatre Director and Writer whose work has been seen at the National Theatre, the Old Vic, the Royal Court, as well as in the West End.