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Designing Shakespeare - Character and Representation

The second trend to which I would like to draw attention, which again is both visceral and visual in its impact, is the increasing use of cross-gendered casting. The case of male actors playing female parts and the increasing appearance of actresses in some of the major Shakespearean leading roles presents a complex series of questions. While, on the one hand, both the actors and directors involved in these productions would claim that their aim is to encourage the audience to suspend their disbelief and accept the character as played, on the other hand, they cannot help but engage themselves in the question of gender identity through their casting choices. Adrian Lester as Rosalind, Mark Rylance as Cleopatra, Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero and Kathryn Hunter as King Lear all want to be believed in the role, however, part of what they bring to the role is precisely the insights of performing it from the perspective of another gender.

Men as Female Characters

Adrian Lester's performance as Rosalind and Mark Rylance's performance as Cleopatra provoked a range of critical responses. The critic's judgement, however, seemed to be largely based on how successful the actor had been at performing womanhood in the critic's mind.

Jeremy Kingston writes of Adrian Lester's performance:

As You Like It 1995 - Click to view a larger imageHere again is Adrian Lester's captivating Rosalind, hesitant, trembling, sweetly impulsive, sheltering a book between cupped palms as though it were a newborn puppy. ( Times 27.1.95)



Antony and Cleopatra 1999 - Click to view a larger imagePaul Taylor describing Mark Rylance's performance states:

There is a moving strain of delicacy and sensitivity in this Cleopatra, as is shown by an excellent directorial detail in the final scene where - her wig now removed, revealing a scalp riddled with alopecia, and wearing a simple white shift - she braces herself for her self-transcending suicide. ( Independent 3.8.99)

Looking only at images of these productions it is not really possible to get an impression of how convincing these actors might or might not have been in their roles. What is clear is that neither of these men is sufficiently convincing as a woman to fool the audience outright. The conviction of the actors in performance must, at moments, have achieved an emotional truth that was moving regardless of the gender of the character. However, what becomes apparent examining the images of performance alongside the reviews is that the audience would have struggled necessarily throughout the performance with the dual state of the actor/character. These productions would have inevitably brought about both an intellectual and an emotional debate since questions about both gender and original practices must surface. Through these casting choices these productions inspired heated debates, which show a level of engagement with both the play and its performance history, past and present, which other contemporary productions have not achieved.

The Tempest  2000 - Click to view a larger imageWomen taking on Shakespeare's Great Roles

Similarly Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero and Kathryn Hunter as Lear King Lear 1997 - Click to view a larger imagewere both trying to achieve a sort of gender neutrality in their performances but were criticised for a range of failings that were largely related to their gender. In both cases the actress was faulted for having a less than commanding voice and physical presence on stage. Of Kathryn Hunter's Lear one reviewer states:

The storm scenes are underpowered, for Hunter is incapable of roaring in her husky voice, and you never get the impression of a performer pushing art to its limits and offering the audience the very stuff of her soul. (Telegraph 01/03/1997)

The use of visual images of the production cannot represent the voice but can give an impression of the physical presence with which audience members were faced.

In both of these productions, as in the case of men playing women, the issue of gender is necessarily highlighted. In this instance, however, the arguments that enter the mind of an audience member are less about the original conditions of performance and more about the expectations of an actor playing these roles and the general state of the acting profession. In other words the questions which arise seems to be as much about equal opportunities as about the competence of these particular actors in these particular roles.

The Debate Created with the Audience

In all four of these examples the debate surrounding the performance extends well beyond the particular production and engages with wider issues about staging past and present. This kind of linking into a performance continuum has in the past been reserved as an accolade for only the most groundbreaking productions. These productions, apart from the casting choices, were relatively straight forward, yet they managed to engage the audience in wider debates. They are noteworthy, I would argue, less because of this unusual casting and more because of the engagement they provoke. The casting, I suggest, was the means rather than the end in each case to engaging active audience involvement.

Production Summaries

Links to Reviews

Antony and Cleopatra 1999

Mark Rylance describes the 1999 season

Adrian Lester

King Lear 1997

The Tempest 2000


Page 4 of 7
Introduction page 2 - Visual argument page 3 -  Politics and performance of place Current page  page 5 - Audience, Actor and Space page 6 - Conclusion page 7- Step by Step guide

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