The gender transcenders

It was written for a man. Now a woman is playing the part. Does the recent trend for role-bending change the play? By Paul Taylor
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Auden, in his later years, was in the habit of referring to God as "Miss God". This does not mean he'd have been overjoyed, though, at the recent announcement that a woman has - to a chorus of predictable protests - been cast as the deity in this year's Mystery Plays cycle at York Theatre Royal. When Auden feminised God, it was camp appropriation ("Of course it's a sin," he would say of homosexuality, "we just have to hope that Miss God will forgive us") not a pioneering feminist gesture. But then to picture a reverse-image world where camp involved a parodic distortion by women of things male is just about as hard as to conceive of the Christian deity as God the Mother.

A letter published in Monday's paper took the pickaxe of pure logic to the casting controversy in York: "Surely God transcends gender, being at the same time both male and female, and neither. As such, He (to use the word in its loosest sense) can be equally appropriately portrayed by actors of either gender (or both or neither)." Well, yes, except that the God portrayed in the Mystery Plays is unmistakably a patriarch and casting a woman in that role cannot help but have political resonances.

There's a forthcoming John Travolta movie, White Man's Burden, which offers an arresting take on American race relations by the simple but radical expedient of switching the skin colours of the blacks and whites. It's as if you are watching a negative of the way things are. Could you pull off the same trick with gender and dramatise a back-to-front world where there are shelters for battered husbands, invisible glass ceilings blocking men's careers, and child support agencies tracking down fugitive mothers who won't pay up?

It would also have to be a world where women worried about their performance in bed and puzzled vainly over what it is that Men Really Want; a world in which the presenters of The Boyz Show, a new late-night programme where "the boyz are in charge and the girls are nervous", were universally berated by TV critics for merely exercising the freedom to be as obnoxious as women. And, of course, it would have to be a world where the artistic director of the York Theatre Royal was obliged to go into print in a national newspaper to defend her decision to cast a man as God the Mother in a new production of the Mystery Plays.

My point is that gender swaps in theatrical productions often disregard the fact that both sexes are guilty of double standards; or the switch will be so localised as to render the rest of the piece incoherent. A near miss at achieving the former occurred in Nick Dear's free RSC adaptation of Tirso de Molina's Last Days of Don Juan, which equipped the libertine hero with a servant who was a female equivalent of the traditional Leporello- Sganarelle figure. She was called upon to evince a proto-feminist outrage at her master's sexual conquests, which was hard to distinguish from sour grapes, being the only woman in the universe, apparently, that the Don did not wish to seduce. But the implications of this weren't handled adroitly enough and what could have been conveyed as an interesting conflict between biology and ideology came across instead as confused characterisation.

As for the second sort of switch, a few years ago Annie Castledine mounted a flawed but highly revealing version of The Caretaker where the part of Davies, Pinter's opportunistic old tramp, was adapted for the actress, Miriam Karlin. Castledine argued in the programme that "with someone as poor as Davies, gender almost ceases to be important", but the production went on to convince you, with remarkable thoroughness, that the worry about status and the edgy territorial power games played by the tramp and the two brothers were as distinctively and indisputably male as the stench from a jock-strap.

One of the subtlest and most scrupulous approaches to gender swapping can be seen in JM Coetzee's novel Foe, which Castledine is now co-directing from an adaptation by Mark Wheatley for Theatre de Complicite. Written in the voice of Susan Barton, an 18th-century castaway who finds herself shipwrecked on the same island as two strangely familiar figures, the book amounts to an alternative Robinson Crusoe. A liberal white South African like Coetzee would never, as some authors might, have made the mistake of rewriting Defoe by turning Susan into a female Friday. There are, after all, many degrees of oppression. Nor does he make her a resourceful role model, a Crusoe with all the political incorrectness extracted.

No, here the gender swap is virtual but, on the level of imagery and situation, insistent. For if there is a male figure whom Susan shadows like a double and whose position she contests, then it is the author of Robinson Crusoe. As Castledine maintains, the book, which is full of ironies about the writing and interpretation of stories, is "an interrogation of authority, the authority of Defoe". Challengingly, for any stage version, the novel takes the very literary form of a memoir, written by Susan once she's back in London with Friday, and then her letters to Defoe (who has consented to turn her experiences into a book) of troubled reflection on the true meaning of the tale and of disagreement with her ghostwriter's priorities.

The muse is female. If only there were a male muse who could make the pens of authoresses flow, Susan thinks at one point. Without realising it, though, she does in fact write a book that can now stand as a corrective to Defoe's version of the myth in which she is suppressed. But this reversal is all the more powerful because of the honest way Coetzee qualifies it by admitting to areas of failure. Though Susan comes to see it as the central story of the island, she cannot (in either sense) sound the silence of Friday whose tongue has been severed, possibly by a slave-trading Crusoe. Her wanting to speak for him may itself, it is implied, be a misdirection of energy. A Hollywood movie would propel Susan and Friday into a passionate clinch so that he could at least converse in the language of love. Here, though, Susan is as unsentimental about her black charge as the novel is about her.

The piece may stir memories of Lucy Irvine, the real life young woman who answered Gerald Kingsland's advertisement in Time Out for a "wife" to spend a year with him on a desert island. If this was a man's fantasy situation, it became, when Irvine wrote about the experiences the following year, very much a woman's story. The irony, though, was that when the director Nicholas Roeg turned the book into a film, it became a man's fantasy all over again, with the camera subjecting Amanda Donohoe, who played Irvine, to the voyeuristic "male gaze". You feel, by contrast, that it's appropriate, given the scrupulous even-handedness of Foe, that it should be directed by both a man (Marcello Magni) and a woman.

n 'Foe' opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse tomorrow to 30 March, then tours. Booking: 0113-244 2111