Wednesday 21 November 2018

To she, or not to she - that is the question

As theatre groups sign up to 'gender-blind casting', Alan Stanford says it is right to cast the best actor for a role, regardless of sex

Director Alan Stanford. Photo: David Conachy
Director Alan Stanford. Photo: David Conachy
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Samuel Beckett objected strenuously to all-female theatre groups staging Waiting for Godot because, he said, "women don't have prostates and couldn't portray the characters accurately".

From that statement, one could deduce that he'd have taken a jaundiced view of news last week that 10 of the country's leading theatres, drama festivals and theatre companies have agreed to a range of gender equality policies, which, in some cases, will allow for 'gender-blind casting'.

This means being open to casting women in roles that were written for men and traditionally played by men.

According to actor and director Alan Stanford, Beckett wouldn't be the only dead playwright struggling with modern adaptations of their work.

Actor Ruth Negga. Photo: Getty
Actor Ruth Negga. Photo: Getty

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Stanford mused that William Shakespeare would be "turning in his grave at a ferocious rate" if he could see some of the things happening to his plays.

But, he says, that doesn't mean the works of some of the greatest writers, shouldn't be reworked to keep pace with modern mores.

"If an actor is good enough to play the part, regardless of their sex, then I agree with it," he said.

"Rosaleen Linehan played Feste in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which is a male role and she played him as a man and she was brilliant.

"She was exactly the right actor to cast in that role in that production.

"Similarly, Glenda Jackson played Lear, and any of my friends who have seen it say she is excellent. So I totally agree with it - but only if it is the right actor."

With Ruth Negga set to play Hamlet in an upcoming production at Dublin's Gate, questions have arisen about the possibility of male actors playing iconic female roles.

Stanford believes it is only fair if the policy works both ways.

"If these principles are okay for Hamlet, then it is perfectly okay for a male actor to play Juliet - as long as they do it well," he said, pointing out that the original productions had male actors playing the women.

He added that the recent feminist movement in Irish theatre and the #Metoo movement had brought dramatic social change. "We now live in a new world."

Asked if it was right for directors to use the great works to make overtly political statements, Stanford said: "The idea of art for art's sake is nonsense.

"Good actors and artists and directors have been using art to make political statements for as long as there has been art and as long as there has been theatre.

"I have no objection to making political statements or to gender-blind casting. My only caveat is that they do it beautifully. The first function of theatre is to entertain and if the audience is confused or they are not enthused by the story because of the changes you have made then you have failed in what you have set out to do."

Speaking about Negga's upcoming role as Hamlet, Stanford described her as "extraordinarily" talented but pointed out that if she plays Hamlet as a woman "there is a lot of rethinking around the play that needs to be done".

He said: "The relationship between a mother and a daughter and a mother and a son is very different. Her relationship with Ophelia will also be different. I am not saying it shouldn't be investigated - let's do that, let's re-examine all of it. What I am saying is that it is crucial that it is done well. It shouldn't just be gratuitous."

Should the work of great artists be deliberately deviated from the way they had been intended?

"That is one of the great perennial questions about art. The answer is that I don't know the answer. If Shakespeare could see some of the things happening to his plays, I am sure he would be turning in his grave at a ferocious rate."

But Stanford said whatever happens to the work today, the original will never be destroyed: "Let's use the visual arts as an example. You don't take the Mona Lisa and draw a moustache on it. You make a copy of the original painting and - if you want, for example, you can draw a moustache on the copy. The artist has that right and I believe every single person on this planet is an artist - in that we all have a right to an opinion and the right to comment and if someone thinks the Mona Lisa would look better with a moustache then you can do it on the copy, just don't touch the original."

On the question of whether it disrespected the artist's work, he said: "We do respect Shakespeare's work. That is why we have places like The Globe in London, it's why there are Shakespeare centres all around the world.

"We will never lose the original so that means we have the freedom to re-examine the plays any way we like, without damaging the original."

The gender equality policy for the theatre sector, launched by Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan, arose from the Waking the Feminists campaign to address the under-representation of women, including writers and directors, in Irish theatre.

The Abbey and the Gate in Dublin, and Druid in Galway have signed up to the policy statement. However, each organisation involved in the process has tailored a policy with different commitments.

The measures adopted in some cases include a commitment that the boards of the organisation will have a 50-50 gender split, "gender-blind readings for plays", "unconscious bias training for all staff", and a commitment to achieving "gender balance in programming within a five-year period".

Sunday Independent

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