ARTS; To play the king (and be a woman)

History is about to be made at the National Theatre - a woman will play Richard II. Why, asks Andrew Temple
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WHEN Richard II opens at the National Theatre on 2 June, he will be played by an actress: Fiona Shaw. Richard II is not everyone's idea of a trousers role. So what are Deborah Warner (the director) and Fiona Shaw up to with this radical piece of recasting? A female Richard II is the sort of thing you might expect to see at the end of term in a boarding school but there is no history of the part being played by a woman professionally. The idea is as bizarre as a male Cleopatra.It is gimmick casting and the really depressing thing about it is that it is already sold out.

The show is apparently part of a long-term experiment in which Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner, old collaborators, will attempt over the coming years to "appropriate" Shakespeare's male characters on the grounds that he didn't write enough decent parts for women.

Much as I believe in the power of great acting to suspend disbelief, there are limits. Surely even the most open-minded theatregoer is going to wonder during Richard II's long speeches why he looks (as Fiona Shaw does) like Joyce Grenfell. Shut your eyes and you will hear a queen not a king. An all-female show might have some logic to it, but to swap the sex of one central character seems perverse.

The conventional view of Richard II is that he's a willowy poet, a sort of medieval Fotherington-Tomas. But apart from being effete, there is not much to justify an actress in the part. Unless Fiona Shaw comes on smoking a pipe and wearing a moustache, she is unlikely to be playing it for laughs.

It is just possible that Warner has a pet historical theory. It is known that the Earl of Essex arranged a special performance of Richard II at the Globe on the eve of his rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1601. He bussed in supporters in the hope that by watching the killing of a monarch on stage it would get them in the mood for a fight. The revolt met with mass apathy and Essex was executed and Elizabeth later remarked; "I am Richard II, know ye not that." If Shaw is playing Richard as Elizabeth she will be up against fond memories of impersonations by Glenda Jackson and Quentin Crisp (the honorary actress).

What is more likely is that we are seeing the theatre breaking the few rules it has left. Even die-hard critics have given up complaining about multi-racial casting.

Does the argument apply to women? If the stage is blind to colour should it also be deaf to gender? In Shakespeare's day women were played by boys (as the gender-swapping lobby never fails to point out) but for social not artistic reasons. Male actors have recently been reviving the tradition by wearing skirts and getting away with it. Cheek by Jowl last year revived their experimental version of As You Like It. That show achieved a double whammy in having a Rosalind who was both black and male. The show divided its audience. Some admired the depths plumbed in its exploration of sexual identity; others chortled at the sight of men in frocks talking in high voices.

The idea anyway wasn't new. A men-only version of the play was staged in the late 1960s. Ronald Pickup played Rosalind and - almost unimaginably - Anthony Hopkins was Audrey. The show would have been forgotten had not the whole embarrassing enterprise been immortalised by Olivier in his backstage remark to one of the actors: "Shave your legs, baby".

Sexual ambiguity has long been one of the theatre's trump cards but until now history plays have been relatively immune. Eddie Izzard, however, is shortly to open as Marlowe's Edward II in Leicester. This is interesting as Izzard is a grey area in terms of sexuality. As a comic he likes to wear nail varnish and a bra. A useful penchant in a play about a homosexual king who would have preferred to have been queen.

Casting is the most important decision directors make. If role-reversal becomes the norm, then we the audience must assert our neglected right to laugh and throw fruit when it doesn't work. There is already talk of the RSC mounting a retaliatory season of women heroes. How about Dawn French's Falstaff, Beryl Reid's Lear and Susan Hampshire's Othello? !