Come, Sir Boy: Subverting Masculinity Through Cross-Gender Performance
IN THIS ARTICLE
“Lay like a lady,” the director told me.
I was the wounded soldier in the opening scene of Macbeth, lying spread-eagled on the stage, flaunting my unsightly gashes. I closed my legs self-consciously. Even portraying a hyper-masculine character, I found myself subject to the parameters of feminine performance. Later in the same production, I gave what was, for high school, a raunchy and riotous performance as the Porter. I referenced what would be my male genitalia, indicating what would be a beer belly, leaning heavily into the masculinity of the scene. I found the humor not just in the words themselves, but in the fact that they were being delivered by me—a slight, seventeen-year-old girl. Years later, I can see my unconscious attempts at subversion in my stock interpretation.
Even at seventeen, I had the sense that it was not enough to tie my hair up in a ponytail and tuck it into my collar. I learned to embody and aggrandize masculinity—to swagger and spit and make unashamed references to my body. I could get away with this as the Porter, but not as any “more serious” character. At every turn as the wounded soldier, I found my attempts at masculine movement and speech utterly squashed. My ponytail caused my back to itch as it rubbed between my shirt and my skin. I was not comfortable in my body. It seemed that my imitation of masculinity was only acceptable if it was played for a laugh, which, at the time, was good enough for me. I had yet to realize that subverted masculinity can be so much more: a laboratory and a battlefield on which to dismantle and examine gender.
Cross-casting in Shakespeare dates back to the beginning of the Bard himself—after all, Shakespeare’s company was comprised entirely of men and boys. It wasn’t until the Edwardian era that women began to take the stage regularly and in the public eye, and it was not until the late 1890s that Sarah Bernhardt famously took up the role of Hamlet. Even through the present day, critics have expressed discomfort, even anger, with the idea of a woman taking on one of Shakespeare’s classic male roles. However, many more reviewers have exalted the practice. Beginning in 2011, Phyllida Lloyd staged a series of three all-female Shakespeare plays: Henry IV, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest. In 2017, The Tempest, the final installment in Lloyd’s Trilogy, was staged at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York City. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley called Lloyd’s Tempest “triumphant,” giving rise to that “giddy liberation that comes from being caught up in a collective fantasy that makes you forget how small your existence can feel” (The New York Times).
Brantley writes of Lloyd’s Tempest, “I rarely stopped to consider that I was watching women playing men” (The New York Times). There’s the rub—to watch a female actor portray a male role and to come away praising her for disguising herself is to wholly miss the purpose of such a casting choice. Brantley praises Harriet Walter’s performance of Prospero because her femininity passes him by. In other words, no threat is made to the masculinity of the character. Lloyd’s Tempest was so much more than proof that women can do everything men can do. It was proof that women can do something entirely different.
Brantley’s positive remark gives a peek into the darker undercurrent that exists even in theatre today—a world of indifference. This loyalty to the Way Things Ought to Be pervades even the most avant garde performances—for what can be abnormal without an acknowledgment of the normal? These whisperings of the status quo find their way into these rave reviews. In his experience of The Tempest, Brantley simply wanted the actors’ womanhood to go unnoticed. He applauds the female cast for putting on a show that transcends their gender—in other words, for performing as admirably as a male cast. For Brantley, gender is an obstacle for the female performer in a male role. Perhaps Brantley’s blindness to the Harriet Walter’s gender was a goal of Phyllida Lloyd’s; perhaps it was an oversight. Regardless of Lloyd’s intent, Brantley’s rave review suggests that even greater, more subtle obstacles are ahead of the cross-gender theatre movement. The age of the benevolent male critic is still in full swing—but not for long.
The Taming of the Shrew: Phyllida Lloyd Skewers Masculinity
In the summer of 2016, director Phyllida Lloyd brought The Taming of the Shrew to life at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park. The cast of Lloyd’s 2016 production, featuring Janet McTeer as Petruchio and Cush Jumbo as Katherine, presented an on-the-nose subversion of the traditionally problematic text. Lloyd’s production made use of the all-female cast to build the world of masculinity from scratch. I recall one particularly harrowing exchange during the famous wooing scene—Petruchio’s first meeting with Katherine—in which he exerts himself both physically and emotionally over her. McTeer grabbed Jumbo’s arm and twisted it, causing her to gasp and yelp in pain. This display of gendered aggression between two female-coding actors threw an even harsher light on the imbalance of power between the sexes. With such overt references to sexual violence, the scene barely remained in the realm of comedy.
The production swung rapidly between these intensely personal scenes and displays of absolute hilarity. For a brief moment, Gremio, portrayed by Judy Gold, broke character to address the audience in a self-referential speech about how boring the now-cut scene was. Gremio’s speech was peppered with classic references to Mad Men era misogyny. Vulture’s Jesse Green recounts Gremio saying, “What happened to the good old days when I would leave my office, grab a martini, fuck my mistress, go home and BOOM! Dinner’s on the table!” If there had been any doubt of Lloyd’s intentions with this production, they were scattered by this line. This nod to the audience toed the line between camp and commentary—the audience appreciated the chance to laugh at Shakespeare himself, but was also confronted with the contemporary language of the same character. Gremio’s speech reminded the audience that there is danger in jest and power in language—and that these attitudes and barriers still exist today.
Lloyd first staged The Taming of the Shrew, also featuring Janet McTeer as Petruchio, at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2003. The following year, the Globe presented an all-female Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Tamara Harvey. In Cross-Gender Shakespeare and English National Identity, Elizabeth Klett ruminates on this series, drawing a distinction between cross-gender Shakespeare as spectacle, a strained effort to tie itself into history, and the all-female cast as the deliberate subversion of masculinity. Klett pits Harvey’s Much Ado About Nothing against Lloyd’s 2003 The Taming of the Shrew. In Much Ado About Nothing, Klett writes, instances of misogyny and sexuality were often glossed over—actor Josie Lawrence defaulted to awkward slapstick to portray Benedick, which “took the sting” (151) out of Benedick’s darker mistrust and disavowal of women. However, in Lloyd’s production, McTeer used the ambiguity in her gender presentation to depict her body as the “site of tension, and continual negotiation” (Klett 159), between masculinity and femininity. Klett implies that Harvey missed an opportunity to turn a critical eye on gender, stereotype, and violence. When a female actor steps into a male character, she not only crosses the line between genders, but she also blurs it. Klett cites cross-gender casting as an inherently subversive act: “gender is a verb, not a noun; a doing rather than a being” (8). The stage is not just the cite of representation—it is the battleground on which subversion can take place. McTeer’s portrayal of Petruchio was masterful in its ambiguity. The character could not be read in a single realm of polarized masculinity or femininity; instead, McTeer straddled the two worlds, highlighting the behaviors that transform “male” into “man.”
McTeer’s portrayal of Petruchio in 2016 was unmistakably masculine. Sporting cowboy boots and a leather jacket, McTeer’s tall, slim profile completed her bad-boy persona. At one point McTeer went as far as to mime urination onstage, making direct reference to Petruchio’s male genitalia and solidifying her embodiment of Petruchio. The audience chuckled in a mix of disgust and incredulity. The audience’s laughter at this moment illustrates that their reception of McTeer’s character and her gender were inextricably linked. This raises the question: at what point does cross-gender casting bridge the gap between novelty and subversion? This depends, I believe, partly on the audience. To the women in the audience, Petruchio’s rough handling and domination of Katherine were all too familiar. To see such violence enacted by someone who presents androgynously evoked a sense of betrayal, as if one of our own had turned on Katherine, our heroine of sorts. For me, at least, the wooing scene was deeply disturbing—it was as though I were watching a close friend display an unexpected and unwelcome side of herself.
However, not every spectator was as deeply affected. Jesse Green panned the production, branding it “just kitsch” (Vulture). In Green’s view, Lloyd’s production was both heavy-handed and lacking coherence. Other reviews were gentler, even exuberant—Variety’s Marilyn Stasio called the fluffy, pink handcuffs momentarily sported by McTeer “a cute touch.” On the whole, these reviews seem to either gloss over or entirely miss the darker implications of Lloyd’s choices with the play. Most significantly, reviewers seemed to view The Taming of the Shrew as a problem in need of solution. Any time a director stages the play, the pressure to make a commentary on its displays of sexism is enormous. This attitude implies that, once this problem is adequately addressed, it no longer exists. On the contrary, The Taming of the Shrew begs constant attention. The play clashes with many of our contemporary notions of gender, but, at the same time, it represents our world with harrowing accuracy. It is this strain which Lloyd captured so well and which her critics, harsh and exuberant alike, failed to address.
In an interview with Variety’s Katie Van-Syckle, Lloyd cites the “larger than life” qualities of any single-gendered Shakespeare cast. According to Lloyd, the uniqueness of the all-female cast gave her more room to push the boundaries of the play. Lloyd addresses the more serious side of her production, saying:
The Taming of the Shrew perplexes contemporary directors because, underlying a thick façade of slapstick comedy, there are such dark implications about the world of women. As Lloyd states, Shakespeare’s play is grounded in the world in which he was writing—an environment in which women were struggling to find a voice. Lloyd’s comment on the largeness of the world of her production illuminates many of the choices that came through onstage.
The play was framed by a Trump-like voice narrating a beauty pageant—“Miss Padua.” At the end of the play, Katherine was announced as the winner, which momentarily filled her with joy. Moments later, Katherine seemed to wake up, screaming with horror, “What am I doing? This isn’t me!” as she was whisked through a trap door in the stage. Within this frame, Lloyd gingerly toed the line between clarity and kitsch. Katherine and Bianca were dressed in hyper-sexual, baby-doll dresses and pigtails, turning them into objects for male attainment, simultaneously infantilized and sexualized. Lloyd’s interpretation makes a clear commentary on the ways in which women are evaluated and exchanged among men. The over-the-top choices that some reviewers took for camp can also be read as biting representations of bodily ownership. The world of Katherine and Bianca was one in which their sole target must be the attraction of men. The result was, appropriately, a garish circus in which the two women were paraded around and literally passed from man to man.
Lloyd’s suggests that all of this was possible because of the female cast. As she says, the portrayal of the male characters by women “throw[s] the behavior of the men into a particular relief” (Lloyd, Variety). By casting only women, Lloyd deprived the audience of their pre-existing conceptions of male behavior. When a man plays a male character, we feel comfortable with our expectations of the way he should behave. However, when we are forced to see those behaviors performed by a woman, they seem wholly unnatural. Petruchio’s torture and man-handling of Katherine seems suddenly more horrifying, but, at the same time, all the more real.
This is not to say that sexual violence seems natural when enacted onstage by a male actor. However, we can retroactively recognize the patterns of behavior that stand out to us as un-feminine when viewing such a scene—Petruchio’s aggression, overconfidence, and nonchalance are all dissonant with our expectations of Janet McTeer as a female actor. Ben Brantley praised Lloyd’s Tempest because he hardly noticed that the actors were female—during her Taming of the Shrew, the audience was forced to notice. There was no escaping the gendered nature of sexual violence, because it was there in front of us. However, the harshness of Kate and Petruchio’s first scene was overshadowed for some audience members. A male directing colleague of mine cited the production’s hilarity and use of the female actors as a tool to ridicule the male characters, returning agency to the women in the play. Where I left the production shaken by the realities of the depiction of sexual violence and intimacy, he left it uplifted. In either case, the femininity of the actors did not simply disappear into the fabric of the show—it acted as a device itself.
All-female Shakespeare is valuable because it erases the distinction between “authentic” and “superficial.” Jesse Green complains that the cross-casting of Taming’s male roles served no purpose other than to give women “a shot at roles that drive the action” (Vulture). Green writes: “With one exception, the women playing men do not come close to filling the roles, directed as they are to focus like amateurs on the mechanics of the drag” (Vulture). Green fails to connect to the spirit of these casting choices. Lloyd’s Taming sent a clear message: “We don’t do this for your eyes, we do it because it’s important.” Of course Janet McTeer will never present as masculinely as a male actor, but this does not prevent her from embodying the character. The gist is that it’s all pretend, no matter who’s pretending. McTeer’s Petruchio, though flawed, highlights the absurdity of it all. By the absence of her off-stage masculinity, she makes the male-ness of the character more present than ever.
“In This Manner Won:” Richard III in Review
Klett cites seemingly endless tirades against cross-gender casting, revealing an entire subculture dedicated to the silencing and marginalization of transgressive actresses. Richard Brooks of the Sunday Times (February 9, 2003) wrote of The Globe’s all-female Richard III: “It is a particularly male play. Having an all-female cast seems very odd. There is also a lot of sexual chemistry, with Richard making it out with several women. He’s a very hetero chap” (Klett 156). Comments like this only highlight the need for gender-bent Shakespeare. More than ever, now is the time for women to blow past the boundaries set for us onstage for so many centuries. Klett’s account of Kathryn Hunter’s portrayal of Richard III as a deeply insecure proto-man suggests infinitely more nuance than Brooks’s outdated interpretation. It is, in many ways, a character that could best be portrayed by a female-coding actor—who better to depict Richard’s endless, insatiable pursuit of the masculine ideal than a person who, within the boundaries set before her, could never truly achieve it?
Richard III paints a particularly clear picture of toxic masculinity. In many classical interpretations, Richard is saddled with inner evil to accompany his physical deformity. In his opening speech, Richard delivers the following lines:
In the first minutes of the play, Richard resolves to act the villain, since he can never play the lover. However, as Brooks points out, Richard does “make it out” with more than one woman over the course of the play. In these lines, Richard simultaneously sets an impossible goal of masculinity and shatters it—having refused to even attempt the role of Lover, he cannot then fail to achieve it. For Hunter’s Richard, the masculine ideal was a central force for the character. In her 2003 review of the play, The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner says of Hunter’s performance: “Subconsciously, perhaps, you take in the ironies, particularly in the scenes where Richard comes face to face with his most spitting adversaries, all of whom are women.” Much akin to McTeer’s Petruchio, Hunter’s Richard brings his own masculinity to the forefront in a larger-than-life representation. For Hunter, Richard’s deformity leaves him crippled both as a human and as a man. However, for Gardner, Hunter’s performance was just barely vibrant enough to carry the play—she gave the production three out of five stars, writing, “Without Hunter at its centre this would not be a goer. But she carries all before her. Her Richard isn't a bottled spider or a hunchback toad, more a cheeky monkey with an eye for advancement.”
In his opening lines, Richard suggests that in “this weak piping time of peace” (I.i. L. 24), he has nothing with which to occupy himself. Richard is a self-proclaimed man of war; the dalliances of peacetime are not interesting to him, nor are they available. However, there is vulnerability in Richard’s callous words. He refers to himself as “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature” (I. i. L. 19), implicating nature in his deformity. This line poses a subtle counterpoint to the common reading that Richard’s inner evil is but a manifestation of his physical deformity. Richard can only resolve to take revenge on a universe that has played a cruel trick on him. His use of language is villainous primarily in its skepticism—self-aware to a fault, Richard’s opening speech can lead the actor in one of a few directions, from pure evil to Hunter’s more vulnerable interpretation. While Richard displays clear hurt at his current state, the length and number of metaphors in these lines suggest bitter sarcasm and cynicism, mocking the environment that spurns him.
In fact, Kevin Spacey brought a great deal of humor to the role in his trans-Atlantic Richard III in 2011. In the 2014 documentary Now: In the Wings on a World Stage, Spacey, director Sam Mendes, and fellow cast members discuss the process of bringing Richard to life. Spacey’s Richard seems to have no other skill than simply being himself. Winning the love of Lady Anne seems almost like an accident, a humorous moment shared between Richard and the audience. When Anne leaves the stage after their famous exchange, Spacey looks out into the audience with cynical incredulity. The audience laughs, having been included in Richard’s self-aware sense of irony. For Spacey’s Richard, masculinity is a byproduct of strength and intelligence. Richard is naturally cunning, and masculine power flows from him to dominate the characters of the play. For Spacey, a man, this masculinity naturally follows from the qualities that make Richard a compelling person. The leap from “confident” to “masculine” is effortless because the framework is already there.
This depiction contrasts sharply with Hunter’s. According to Klett, Hunter portrayed a Richard who was constantly straining to achieve his own masculine ideal. She writes that “he laughed at those who mocked or insulted him, but underneath his surface bravado he clearly felt pain” (Klett 154). Hunter used Richard’s overblown displays of masculinity not only to highlight performativity but also to alienate the audience. Where Spacey encouraged recognition and comradery, Hunter engendered guilt and discomfort. Klett writes that Hunter used the language most disparaging of femininity to remind the audience of her gender, ever-present and inseparable from herself and, therefore, from Richard (159). Like McTeer, Hunter relied on the character traits that distance Richard from femininity to highlight the harsh realities of the character. The female actor’s attempts to emulate masculinity within a character who struggles himself to do the same adds a shade of complexity to the performance that is often sorely lacking when the role is performed by a person whose gender is aligned with that of the character.
Women playing traditionally male roles face the challenge of justifying their casting through their performance. When Hunter was announced as the next Lear in 1997, the Daily Telegraph addressed this development with an article entitled, “This woman is to play King Lear. Why?” (Klett 18). At every turn, it seems that there is no place in Shakespeare for women who wish to transcend their allotted roles. For some, the “why” is obvious: we are told time and time again, in a thousand different ways, that certain parts of Shakespeare are not for us. Subverting male roles not only opens up worlds to female actors, but it opens a space in which masculinity and gender can be questioned. Klett points out that, in Western culture, masculinity is considered non-performative, essential, authentic (12)—“the cross-gendered actress performs gender to reveal that it is a performance” (10). In Klett’s view, the tendency of critics to presume knowledge of “authentic Shakespeare,” or even of the playwright’s original intent, obstructs their ability to understand and appreciate the subversion of Shakespeare’s plays. Klett introduces the term “iconicity:”
When a woman assumes a male role, she challenges what many consider the sanctity of Shakespeare’s great roles—she “disrupts the iconicity” of the character (Klett 17), revealing the instability of the masculinity associated with it. When Hunter portrayed Richard as not entirely masculine—and, by extension, not entirely male—she undermined Brooks’s idealized notion of who Richard ought to be. Hunter’s genius lies in her ability to dislodge the audience from their presumptions while keeping them enthralled in her performance—a skill which will justify her presence onstage a thousand times over.
Caesar in Prison: Performing Gender in Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar
In her article “Cross-Gender Casting as Feminist Interventions in the Staging of Early Modern Plays,” Gemma Miller analyzes the practice through a philosophical lens. Miller writes of cross-gender casting as a sort of “feminist activism” (9), which is slowly making its way into the mainstream of British theatre. Writing on Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar—set in a women’s prison—at the Donmar Warehouse, Miller contends that the masculine nature of the play created “spectatorial distance” (10) that invited the audience to actively engage with gender as a construct. She writes:
Miller suggests that the extreme juxtaposition of female body and masculine ideal has a profound effect. Lloyd’s choice of projects reflects this idea: Henry IV, Julius Caesar, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Tempest are all quite dependent on masculinity and its displays. The gap between presentation and performance highlights both—what Miller calls “re-staging as opposed to removing representation” (11, emphasis in original).
In the program for St. Ann’s Warehouse’s staging of Lloyd’s Tempest, Harriet Walter says of the Trilogy:
Walter and Lloyd both suggest that they chose the more traditionally male-dominated plays as new territory for female actors. Lloyd says that, once in their prison uniforms, the actors were “instantly freed and instantly androgynous” (St. Ann’s Warehouse). Within a frame in which everyone is the same gender, shades of masculinity and femininity are expressed in infinitely nuanced ways. Without the external shows of femininity characteristic of the outside world, the prisoners are reduced to their most basic traits. When Lloyd’s creative team corresponded with actual prisoners, they called the metaphor ‘very suitable’ (Lloyd). Lloyd’s prison metaphor both clarified her vision and blurred the line between reality, frame, and allegory. Lloyd says:
Lloyd creates a world in which the gender of the actors functions not only in the external process of the show, but also as a device within the play, interacting with the text and affecting the audience in novel ways. The audience is tasked not only with drawing meaning from the text for themselves, but also with understanding what the text means to the prisoners. This double lens simultaneously distances the audience from the material and acts as a sort of microscope—the audience is asked to zoom in on particular elements of the text that call gender and performativity into question.
Miller also addresses Lloyd’s lack of attempt to disguise the female bodies of her actors. She recounts that the actor portraying Portia and Octavius Caesar was visibly pregnant, with her belly clearly visible through her army uniform (11). Miller terms this “slippage between actor and character” (12). This disparity both disorients and engages the audience, dismantling what Bert O. States calls the “passive security of the audience” (Miller 12). As Miller writes: “the effect was not the reversal of gender hierarchies but the deconstruction of gendered bodies” (13). This ultimate goal is just one step beyond Klett’s subversion of audience expectations. Cross-gender casting not only dislodges the expectation that a male character be played by a man, but it also questions whether the character’s gender is recognizable at all. By demonstrating that gender is fallible, Lloyd’s Julius Caesar “disrupt[ed] the authority of the ‘male gaze’” and “challenged the means to possess and subordinate the female body” (Miller 13).
This claim reaches all the way back to Jesse Green’s complaint about Phyllida Lloyd’s Taming of the Shrew. Green writes:
Here, Green’s interpretation falls victim to several common misconceptions. First among them is the outdated expectation that a likable character makes a likable production. While Green provides valuable insight into what makes McTeer’s Petruchio so resonant, he wholly misses the juxtaposition between McTeer’s casual dynamism and Jumbo’s frantic shrewishness. The very purpose of such a production is to draw these epithets—“one-note,” “twit”—out of the mouths of male critics struggling to find a foothold in a piece without male influence.
Green finds himself grasping for signs of gender among bodies that deconstruct it. By Miller’s reasoning, the easy recognition of the female body is in a sense the possession of it—the male gaze seeks to identify and subjugate femininity. When the ease of this task is subverted, the audience is naturally confused and frustrated. In a sense, these depictions divide the audience even more drastically. Where Green saw Cush Jumbo’s performance as “one-note,” I saw a clear and profound reflection of female frustration—when no one seems to be listening, one naturally starts to repeat herself. Lloyd’s production gave the audience—even the male audience—a rare window into the story through a feminine lens. Masculinity interpreted by women unseats and threatens the audience.
Unlike The Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar lacks a prominent narrative of femininity. While the play has a strong female character in Brutus’ wife Portia, Julius Caesar largely excludes the themes of misogyny and gendered violence so overt in The Taming of the Shrew. Julius Caesar finds its heart in masculinity and brotherhood, and it is this core that helps it fit into Lloyd’s Trilogy while The Taming of the Shrew sits on the periphery. Walter mentions that “there are very few roles for women after a certain age” (St. Ann’s Warehouse). Women’s roles are scarce, then, not only in number, but in range. Walter’s acting career—including roles such as Queen Elizabeth and Cleopatra—was already substantial before she began the Trilogy, but in her words, “at that point [I] was going to have to abandon the sport” (St. Ann’s Warehouse). There are very few female roles in Shakespeare to be aged into in the same way one ages into King Lear or Prospero. Walter’s task as Henry IV, Brutus, and Prospero was not just to perform masculinity, but aged masculinity in ways both novel and recognizable.
“I Must Eat My Dinner:” The Tempest in a Women’s Prison
In January of 2017, The Tempest, the final installment of Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy, came to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn after a triumphant run at the Donmar Warehouse. With Harriet Walter as Prospero, Lloyd employed the frame that has been consistent throughout her trilogy—the play was performed as a play-within-a-play set in a women’s prison.
The actors entered as the prisoner-performers. Walter began with a prosaic speech: “My name is Hannah….” Walter-as-Hannah told the audience the story of her incarceration, based on the true story of Judy Clark, an American woman who was arrested and imprisoned for life when her daughter was only eleven months old (Walter). Walter and Lloyd elaborated on the origins of the Trilogy in the program for The Tempest. According to Walter, Clark is now fully reformed, though she is not eligible for parole until she is 107. Lloyd says, “So all three plays, in some way, are underpinned by Judy Clark’s story.” Perhaps more than any other play in the Trilogy, The Tempest directly reflects Clark’s circumstances.
Where Gemma Miller notes the distance created by the prison frame, there is also closeness. The women’s prison is recognizable to present-day viewers—more familiar, perhaps, than the all-female cast. In a way, the prison setting excuses the casting. It helps it “make sense” to audience members who might have reservations. However, Lloyd does not shy away from utilizing the strangeness of the all-female cast. In the same interview, she says:
Here, Lloyd touches on the potential of the single gendered cast to expose the worlds of all genders. Both Lloyd and Walter also cite the scarcity of monumental roles for women in Shakespeare as one of the key forces behind the choice to cast only women. In his New York Times review, Ben Brantley exalts the production, using the phrase “do-it-yourself creativity” to characterize the immensely inventive environment of the play.
However, Brantley and Lloyd seem to bypass each other on the more nuanced implications of the production. Brantley reviews the play as though it were performed by a “normal,” co-ed cast. He writes, “I was too much under the spell of make-believe that is theater, in which a talented person can will herself into any form” (The New York Times)—that is, the form of a male actor. From Lloyd’s interview, we can infer that the male form is hardly part of the equation. Lloyd considers masculinity as a thing to be dismantled, not upheld. In Lloyd’s Trilogy, the prison frame serves not only to provide context for the audience but to represent the subjugated narratives of the actual female prisoners on whom the characters are based. These women are the form assumed by Lloyd’s actors. Perhaps Brantley’s misinterpretation of the production’s intent speaks to a lack of clarity of its execution, but more than that, it reveals a lingering loyalty to the masculine dominance of theater today.
In a way, Brantley’s fumble answers the question raised by Lloyd’s interview—what distinguishes the all-female cast from the all-male? Lloyd’s statement references only casts of a “single gender,” implying that a cast of men could also highlight similar themes. However, women must work up to the ideal of masculinity, whereas a man playing a woman must shed his masculinity. The task of achieving masculinity so often falls victim to reviews like Brantley’s, in the vein of: “It was so good, I hardly noticed that they were just women.”
When viewed through Brantley’s lens, however positive, female actors are still subject to male ideals of performance and masculinity. What Brantley misses here is that masculinity itself is performative—Lloyd’s vision dismantles gender entirely. Building gender in a world in which the audience’s disbelief must be so thoroughly suspended gives the performers more freedom to explore the role that gender plays in each character.
Lloyd’s prison frame contextualizes the events of the play, giving the audience a foothold in an otherwise alien environment. In the St. Ann’s program, Walter says:
Walter highlights the collaborative creativity of the production, which finds its purpose in lifting up the narratives of those whose stories are not often told. The Trilogy supports this vision on multiple levels: told through the eyes of prisoners and based on real people, the prisoner-actors illuminate the realities and indignities of life in captivity. On another level, the actors themselves have the opportunity to represent the intricacies of gender and femininity.
Brantley remarks on the sterile nature of the set, which was more than compensated for by rich lighting and sound effects (The New York Times). In practice, these effects obscured the realism of the setting. Lloyd seemed to stretch herself between putting on a show that was both critical of modern-day’s dependence on gender and an entertaining spectacle for today’s audiences. Certainly, the two can coexist in one production, but when the lines between the realism of the frame and the creative needs of the production are blurred, some clarity is lost.
At its core, Lloyd’s Tempest was a human story. At the very end, the players broke their Shakespearean characters and returned to their prisoner selves. Time sped up, and all were eventually released with the exception of Walter’s Hannah. We saw brief glimpses into who the prisoners were and how they related to each other. In a touching moment, Hannah said a tender goodbye to the woman who had played Miranda, portrayed by Leah Harvey. The audience had a precious moment to appreciate the tremendous diversity of the cast, as well as the breadth and depth of the stories they told.
Tennis Balls?! Michelle Terry as Henry V
In the summer of 2016, Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park staged Shakespeare’s Henry V with Michelle Terry in the title role. Directed by Robert Hastie, the production featured several other gender-swapped characters, including Princess Katherine (Ben Wiggins) and many key captains. Much like Phyllida Lloyd’s productions, the cast of Henry V was also diverse in age and race. The production took place within the Chorus’ frame. At the beginning of the play, the Chorus, portrayed by Charlotte Cornwell, almost gave the crown to Alex Bhat, who later portrayed the Dauphin. Instead, she crowned Terry, leaving Bhat confused and bitter. From the beginning, Bhat’s masculinity is wounded, and as the production progressed, the miniscule Terry continued to prove herself as King of England. Later in the play, the Dauphin’s gift of tennis balls carried an additional shade of disrespect, blurring the line between reality and performance.
The pronouns of the characters remained as they are in the text, as did their modes of dress. Appearing first in fencing gear and a skirt, Ben Wiggins portrayed Princess Katherine with distinctly feminine mannerisms. Wiggins wore no wig—nor did Terry disguise her body—but appeared later in the play in a dress and heels. On the surface, gender seemed completely absent from the production. However, the actors performed gender clearly, utilizing the distance between themselves and their roles to bring the characters to life in perhaps a more nuanced way than could a gender-aligned actor.
The production was widely well-received. The Guardian’s Michael Billington calls the production a “reinvigoration,” and Dominic Cavendish of The Telegraph calls it a “vital wake-up jolt.” These critics praise the way the production makes a nod to masculinity while maintaining the fervor for English patriotism usually associated with the text. However, the Independent’s David Lister was not convinced:
Here, Lister wishes that Terry had made more of an effort to commit to the cross-cast. In fact, Cavendish actually praises Terry’s androgynous take on the King. Both critics agree that Terry was performing a truer self than any gender. However, Lister found himself caught up on his expectations that Henry be a man and present as such. Terry’s Henry contrasted strongly with McTeer’s Petruchio. McTeer’s performance had every element of performativity—though wholly believable, her masculine characteristics were still artificial. On the other hand, Terry made no effort to stretch herself to fit any masculine ideal. The Guardian’s Susannah Clapp writes: “She does not do a girl-man act. No shoulder-rolling. No big-boot work.” Hastie’s production seemed to comment on gender on a broader scale—rather than focusing directly on masculinity, Hastie honed in on the irrelevance of gender to the entire play.
By including the Chorus’ choice of Terry as the King, Hastie planted the seed of critical thought that pervaded the rest of the production, albeit incredibly subtly at times. For example, Henry’s four captains were all portrayed by women of varying origins and accents. These actors leaned heavily into their regional dialects and turned their scenes into short comedies. However, each actor also gave off carefully measured masculinity through their use of voice and physicality. Later, Wiggins presented the mirror image with his sensitive and nuanced portrayal of Princess Katherine. By mixing and matching characters with actors of varying gender presentations, Hastie humbly asks the audience to consider what truly comprises gender and what role it truly plays in the telling of the story.
Revolutionary Road: Jenny Leon’s 1776
On the 20th of February, 2017, Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York City staged a concert production of Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’ 1776 for a one-night engagement. Directed by Jenny Leon, the production featured an all-female cast of diverse races and ages. Leading the cast as John Adams, Carolee Carmello displayed all the frustration and energy of her predecessors. Carmello paid clear homage to her role’s originator, William Daniels, shouting his iconic “Never!” with iconic fervor. Leon’s dynamic cast performed with admirable gusto and proved, most importantly, that now more than ever is the time to subvert early images of America.
Leon paints a particular picture of masculinity—the masculinity that revolted against the British and founded the United States. Throughout the musical, the men fight for what they believe in with the support of their witty wives. The concert, peppered by shortened dialogue, toed the line between farce and commentary masterfully. At times, the jokes onstage led the audience to whoop and holler in agreement. At others, the room fell dead silent. When Brittney Coleman, a woman of color, delivered Thomas Jefferson’s line—“I have already resolved to free my slaves” (Stone and Edwards)—a solemn hush fell over the room. The closure of the distance between actor and character made the audience noticeably uncomfortable. Until then, the suspension of disbelief was seamless. In a concert setting, the threshold for belief was significantly lower than for any of Lloyd’s productions. In the intimate setting of 54 Below’s lounge, the audience members were able to clearly see and interact with each other. The production reflected the cordial, casual atmosphere of the lounge.
Rachel Goldstein, a recent graduate of Yale University and my neighbor for the evening, cited a combination of love for 1776 and a lack of strong female leads, even in contemporary musicals, as her reason for attending the performance. “It’s great that things like this are starting to become more popular,” she said, “I feel like strong women are finally making it to the mainstream” (Goldstein). Goldstein’s views were reinforced by the rest of the table. The primary draw of Leon’s production seemed to be the novelty of the all-female cast. However, Leon’s casting choices, as well as the dialogue she chose to include, suggest a more thoughtful approach to the concert than simple novelty.
The content of the play was more pertinent than ever in February of 2017. When Edward Rutledge snidely asks John Adams if he is considering black slaves Americans, Adams hotly replies: “They are people, and they are here. If there’s any other requirement, I haven’t heard of it” (Stone and Edwards). Carmello’s fervent delivery of this line sparked riotous applause from the audience at a time in which patriotism and belonging in the United States was—and is—hotly contested. Carmello depicted a clearly masculine Adams who, against the warnings of his colleagues, stood strongly for what he believed in. Adams’ fury passed far beyond behavior that could be considered “ladylike,” and Carmello capitalized on the freedom to behave as loudly and bombastically as possible. These displays of confidence—intellectual, physical, and sexual—permeated the performances of each actress.
These affectations highlighted the sexual nature of some of the text in new ways. Much of Stone and Edwards’ lyrics and dialogue dances around the sexual frustration of being away from home. In fact, an entire subplot is dedicated to Adams summoning Jefferson’s wife so that he can get on with writing the Declaration of Independence. For me, the women acting out this narrative brought it to life in a fresh way. Where it had fallen by the wayside before, the masculine and sexual energy of these characters came very much to the forefront in the hands of Leon’s cast. During the song “But, Mr. Adams,” the men had the following exchange:
These lyrics demonstrate the ways in which masculinity is tied to sexual virility for these characters. Performed by women, some of whom wore dresses, these lines seem bizarre. Miller’s “spectatorial distance” comes into play here—the humor exists partly in the lines of the song and partly in the separation between character and actor. The gender presentation of the actors colored these lines with a shade of cynicism. Traditionally, the women in the musical are almost wholly represented as objects of desire—Martha Jefferson appears for the sole purpose of reuniting with her husband, and John Adams depends on his wife, Abigail, for moral and material support. With a cast of all women, the miniscule nature of these roles is ever highlighted through the slapstick comedy of the male characters.
“Oh, Mr. Jakabok:” Cross-casting in the Contemporary Musical
In February of 2017, I began work with composer and lyricist Terra Warman on a musical adaptation of Mister B. Gone, a novel by Clive Barker. The musical follows the life of a young demon named Jakabok Botch, who, alongside another demon, named Quitoon, travels the Earth. The story unfolds within a frame—Jakabok tells the story of his life with the aid of a small ensemble, who are present for the entire show, whether or not they are participating. While both demons are male, Warman plans to cast a woman in the role of Jakabok.
In an interview, Warman said of cross-casting: “What’s more important is that the actor has the tone and energy most consistent with the role.” To Warman, Jakabok’s story transcends the limits of gender identity. While masculinity and femininity play a clear role in the presentation and interactions of each character, these traits are not constraints on the casting. “What’s more important are other power dynamics that color the characters’ relationships to each other,” Warman said, “The door is open.” Equally important to Warman is the general inclusivity of the cast. Warman’s original cast includes people of varying gender identities, sexual orientations, races, and backgrounds. She says:
Here, Warman echoes Miller’s attitude toward gender as a construct. Gender serves primarily as something recognizable and familiar to the audience, but it is not the ultimate character identifier. Warman makes another important point: it’s all just pretend. The artist can do nothing but make decisions; it is for the audience to interpret them. In crafting a production, especially in the writing phase, Warman emphasizes that the artist has full agency over the world she creates—and Warman’s world is inclusive. In writing music, Warman writes for a particular voice—often, this voice must be particularly male or female. However, she also states that “if an imposing enough woman walked into the audition room and put the fear of God in me, by all means, I’d cast her as Pappy Gatmuss, [Jakabok’s abusive father]” (Warman). Warman’s thinking seems to align best with Robert Hastie’s—both Mister B. Gone and Henry V feature cross-casting in all directions.
Warman’s attitude toward casting is becoming more and more prevalent among young theatre-makers, especially in musical theatre. Warman’s characters are more an expression of the actor herself than of a character of Warman’s creation. Especially for the ensemble, who play across varying genders, the characters written are androgynous by design. Warman elaborates:
Warman’s ensemble is necessarily genderless. To Warman, gender is a crutch for the audience, something that one holds onto in order to grasp the familiarity of a character. The ensemble reproduces masculinity and femininity as necessary, but, for the most part, it’s a free-for-all. Certain characters will be more likely to be cast gender-aligned—Jakabok’s abusive father and hyper-masculine love interest will, according to Warman, most likely be played by men. Warman says it will all come down to “who’s right for the part,” and, in cases like these, male actors have a shorter distance to leap into character.
Warman’s ensemble consists of several groups of characters, from madmen to witches. The witches are some of the only ensemble parts with specified genders, and they reappear throughout the play. Warman says:
Pictures of femininity vary throughout the play. We are introduced briefly to Jakabok’s mother and sister, Charyat. We meet Caroline, Jakabok’s ill-fated first love, and then we meet She, a nameless lover. In each of these instances, the women are defined by their relationships. To Warman, the gender presentation of these characters is important, but the casting can vary. She says, “When I think about the identities of these characters, Charyat is a girl. Can she be played by a man? Of course. But Charyat is female” (Warman). Here, it is not so much womanhood or anatomy, but femininity itself that plays a part. Where Miller analyzes Lloyd’s “re-staging” of gender in Julius Caesar, Warman poses a deconstruction—in many ways, a destruction—of gender presentation. The audience is asked to enter a world where gender is non-binary and only as important as the individual makes it. By freely cross-casting each character, Warman makes presentation and affectation central to the storytelling. The audience can infer nothing without the aid of the performers, and they must release any pre-conceived expectations they have of the production.
Even for Jakabok, as well as in the ensemble, Warman contends that gender is second fiddle:
In Warman’s interpretation of Barker’s novel, Hell has fewer human prejudices—gender and sexual orientation give way to class, age, and size. In Jakabok’s narrative, he has romantic relationships with both men and women, humans and demons, and the writer—and, she hopes, the audience—simply take this in stride. Warman suggests that the audience will match the artist’s emphasis. By taking Jakabok’s sexuality for granted, Warman denies the audience space to question it. Likewise, by cross-casting multiple roles, Warman invites the audience into the world of the play, where expectations are as untrustworthy as the ensemble. Here, cross-casting serves primarily to disorient the audience and raise critical questions about the nature of storytelling. To do this, Warman makes these unexpected choices pervasive, cross-casting all the way down to the ensemble, some of whom will also play instruments and all of whom interact with the audience regularly.
Throughout the musical, the ensemble supplements the songs with smaller narratives. Madmen are treated, witches are tortured, and the dead dance as Jakabok recounts his singular tale. Within Jakabok’s story, the text contains infinite shades of personal and historical narrative, inviting the audience to view the ensemble as representative of something larger. In particular, the audience repeatedly meets the three witches. Warman’s witches provide a platform for autonomous women, present but not directly involved in the story’s telling. The witches are more or less the foundation for the ensemble—they define the ensemble’s role in the story. Warman says:
Warman hopes that the ensemble reflects something recognizable in the audience without representing gender. In this case, cross-gender casting serves not to highlight, but to diminish gender and its performativity. By stripping away gender and sexuality, Warman bares the bones of the relationships between her characters. The audience is forced to examine the characters on another level, taking in the horrors and joys of Jakabok’s life as he tells it.
However, more than anything, Warman cites equality of opportunity in her reasoning. She says:
Warman hopes to represent this idea by deliberately cross-casting Jakabok. This statement harkens back to Harriet Walter’s program interview, in which she bemoaned the lack of roles for mature actresses: “It is a well-rehearsed fact that there are very few roles for women after a certain age” (St. Ann’s Warehouse). This extrapolates to roles like Jakabok Botch—lanky, brooding, and deeply intelligent, Jakabok is a role filled time and time again by men. However, under Warman’s supervision, the door into roles like these will soon be opened for more women.
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What happens to the text when a play’s dominant gender is portrayed by the object of its power? The all-female cast is a phenomenon that I believe could be a key factor in pursuing the question of how gender influences the performance of Shakespeare’s plays. Now, possibly more than ever, is the time to delve into the politics of gender onstage and off. When an artist takes on a production, it is her responsibility to depict the material responsibly, conscientiously, and with integrity. However, what this means is constantly changing. Many reviewers and actors have said that, after an adjustment period, they no longer notice the gender of the actor portraying the male roles in a play (Klett 152). This is a sore misuse of female actors. The leveled field of an all-female cast serves not to break down the barriers between characters in the text, but to highlight them. When a female actor builds a male character, all of the nuanced traits of masculinity come through with practiced intention.
Masculinity is ingrained in the way audiences interpret performance. In a sense, the only way to highlight the traits that we already expect to see is to present them on a different surface—the female body. The audience only notices masculinity when it chafes against them; the audience at The Taming of the Shrew reacted most strongly when McTeer created dissonance between her body and her behavior as Petruchio. Like many art forms, cross-gender casting often serves to engender a reaction from the audience—in some cases, any reaction will do. If Jesse Green even notices the difference between a male and female actor’s portrayal of Petruchio, perhaps this is a small victory for Phyllida Lloyd.
As the field of gender studies evolves, the theatre that reflects it must also transform. Theatre companies in what might be considered the avant garde are now actively seeking to represent the narratives of people with non-binary or trans genders. As these narratives make their way onto larger and larger stages, new and old work alike must be adapted to reflect this ever-changing environment. Cross-gender (and gender-fluid) casting is one of the surest ways to represent and reflect upon these narratives, as the complete reversal of audience expectations uproots the structures and hierarchies that constrain representation.
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I am directing Cyrano de Bergerac. My ensemble of fourteen medical students includes no fewer than ten women. They are soldiers, musketeers, courtiers. I tell the actors that they have full control over how they present their gender. It is not the high-profile, earth-shattering theatre of the Globe or the Public, but it has its impact on my small Columbia community. After stretching to portray male roles onstage for so long, I am committed to helping other actors occupy these same characters on their own terms. I hope that I have created a space—a laboratory, for some—where actors of any gender can interpret their roles in a way most meaningful to them. The stage is nearly bare. We have started at ground level and built a world of our own. I have just one rule: no ponytails.
1776. By Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards. Dir. Jenny Leon. Prod. Shoshana Feinstein. Feinstein’s/54 Below, New York. 20 February, 2017.
Billington, Michael. “Henry V review: astonishing gender-switched reinvigoration.” The Guardian. 23 June 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jun/23/henry-v-review-open-air-theatre-regents-park. Accessed 4 January 2017.
Brantley, Ben. “Review: In ‘The Tempest,’ Liberation and Exhilaration. The New York Times. 18 January, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/theater/review-in-the-tempest-liberation-and-exhilaration.html?_r=0. Accessed 20 January, 2017.
Clapp, Susannah. “Henry V review: if Shakespeare had done Brexit.” The Guardian. 3 July 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jul/03/henry-v-open-air-regents-park-review-michelle-terry. Accessed 4 January, 2017.
Gardner, Lyn. “Richard III.” The Guardian. 13 June, 2003. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2003/jun/13/theatre.artsfeatures1. Accessed 6 January, 2017.
Green, Jesse. “Theater Review: Is It Possible to Produce an Enlightened The Taming of the Shrew?” Vulture. 13 June 2016. http://www.vulture.com/2016/06/theater-review-the-taming-of-the-shrew.html. Accessed 8 December 2016.
Henry V. By William Shakespeare. Dir. Roger Hastie. Open Air Theatre, London. 17 June 2016–9 July 2016.
Klett, Elizabeth. Cross-Gender Shakespeare and English National Identity. Palgrave MacMillan: New York, 2010.
Lister, David. “Henry V, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, review: ‘Delivers less than it promised.” The Independent. 23 June 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/henry-v-regent-s-park-open-air-theatre-review-delivers-less-than-it-promised-michelle-terry-a7097151.html. Accessed 4 January 2017.
Lloyd, Phyllida. Interview by Katie Van-Syckle. “Phyllida Lloyd Reveals Challenges of Bringing All-Female ‘Taming of the Shrew’ to Central Park.” Variety. 24 May, 2016. http://variety.com/2016/legit/reviews/taming-of-the-shrew-phyllida-lloyd-shakespeare-in-the-park-1201782312/. Accessed 4 January, 2017.
Lloyd, Phyllida and Walter, Harriet. “Three Plays. Four Years.” As interviewed in the program for The Tempest. St. Ann’s Warehouse. 14 January, 2017.
Miller, Gemma. “Cross-Gender Casting as Feminist Interventions in the Staging of Early Modern Plays.” Journal of International Women’s Studies. Vol. 16, No. 1. November 2014.
Now: In the Wings on a World Stage. Dir. Jeremy Whelehan. Treetops Productions, 2014.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Richard III. Act I. Scene. I. Lines 14-31. New York: Washington Square, 2004.
Stasio, Marilyn. “Shakespeare in the Park Review: Phyllida Lloyd’s All-Female ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’” Variety. 13 June 2016. http://variety.com/2016/legit/reviews/the-taming-of-the-shrew-review-shakespeare-in-the-park-1201794388/. Accessed 8 December, 2016.
The Taming of the Shrew. By William Shakespeare. Dir. Phyllida Lloyd. The Public Theatre, New York. 24 May–26 June, 2016.
Warman, Terra. Interview. 24 May 2017.