The Week in Arts: Theatre needs more gender-swapping

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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.

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