The Week in Arts: Theatre needs more gender-swapping

Share

The Bristol Old Vic may be the country's oldest working theatre, but it is doing something radically new. It is staging an all-male version of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. In a feature about this in The Independent this week, Paul Taylor reminded us that Sir Peter Hall had the same idea at the National Theatre in the Seventies. But it was opposed by Harold Pinter, then an associate director at the National Theatre.

The Bristol Old Vic may be the country's oldest working theatre, but it is doing something radically new. It is staging an all-male version of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. In a feature about this in The Independent this week, Paul Taylor reminded us that Sir Peter Hall had the same idea at the National Theatre in the Seventies. But it was opposed by Harold Pinter, then an associate director at the National Theatre.

According to Sir Peter's diaries, Pinter objected vigorously that an all-male cast was not Wilde's wish. Sir Peter wrote: "Pinter's position is clear: an author has certain clear intentions, and Wilde's intentions were not that the women should be played by men."

I never knew that the playwrights' union was so strong. Surely, once a play is out in the public domain it is allowable for imaginative directors to find new interpretations, not stick rigidly to the playwright's perceived wishes.

I mention this because I think cross-gender casting is a fascinating direction for theatre to explore. And what better playwright to do next than Harold Pinter?

Could there be a more intriguing piece of casting than Dame Maggie Smith as the tramp in Pinter's The Caretaker? Those who remember her transformation to a bag lady in Alan Bennett's Lady in the Van will agree that she could be remarkable in The Caretaker. It may not have been the playwright's original intention, but life and art move on.

The point is a serious one. Maggie Smith would be brilliant in the role just as Fiona Shaw was brilliant as King Richard II in Deborah Warner's National Theatre production of a decade ago. There are certain roles in which sexuality does not really intrude, and certain plays in which there are no romantic scenes. Richard II is one; The Caretaker is another. There are dozens more.

It is strange that Fiona Shaw's triumph did not lead to a move to more cross-gender casting. Yes, there has been the occasional all-male or all-female cast, at Shakespeare's Globe and now at the Bristol Old Vic, but that is a different exercise from having major male roles in otherwise conventionally cast productions played by a leading actress.

The virtue of the latter exercise is that good parts for actresses past the age of 50 (if not indeed much earlier) are thin on the ground. But there are plenty of good male roles for performers in middle age and beyond.

Maggie Smith would be tantalising in The Caretaker. Judi Dench could be a remarkable Prospero in The Tempest. Vanessa Redgrave might make an affecting Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. The likes of Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins and numerous others could be at the start of a new adventure in acting.

I couldn't care less what the playwright's original intentions were. Once the thing is written and published, it doesn't belong to the playwright any more. It belongs to us.

Falling down on grammar

The run of shows, just ended, by Sylvie Guillem and The Ballet Boyz at Sadler's Wells, was mesmerising.

Guillem, at 40, still has the technique, strength and energy alongside her startling stage presence to have them queuing every night for returns. Alistair Spalding, head of Sadler's Wells, must be delighted that hers was one of the first performances after his unilateral declaration that Sadler's Wells is now the nation's dance house.

But a national dance house must also explain lucidly the finer points of dance. In the programme for Guillem and The Ballet Boyz, the climactic dance Broken Fall, in which Guillem falls spectacularly backwards from the shoulders of one ballet boy into the arms of another, was explained on a page with three sentences, of which this was the main one:

"Created especially for this trio, the collaboration of artists formed on the request of Guillem to work with Maliphant, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt after watching Torsion." It's not just the lack of a finite verb that makes it incomprehensible. It's gibberish.

The national dance house needs to do better.

¿ The latest edition of Word magazine shows archive pictures of The Rolling Stones performing in 1965. In all of the pictures, the fans are sitting down, and most of the males present are wearing a collar and tie. In all the millions of words written about rock music specifically, and about the Sixties in general, I don't think anyone has yet investigated when the change came about in rock audience clothing and behaviour.

At some point later in the decade, fans not only decided to stand up more often; they also decided that jacket and tie for Street Fighting Man was the wrong dress code. Was there one particular gig, I wonder, when a Bacchanalian frenzy overtook the crowd and ties were ripped off in rock abandon?

And what about those fans rioting in the streets of Hamburg? Presumably, they also were dressed up to the nines. It must have been one of the poshest riots ever.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

Government hails latest GDP figures, but there is still room for scepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little