Should Uncle Vanya become Auntie Vanya? We could do with more Gender blind casting on stage and TV

Actresses should be allowed to play more of the great classic male roles


Colour-blind casting is thankfully commonplace. Is it time for gender-blind casting to move centre stage? Emma Thompson thinks so. The actress admits she has an itch to play Sherlock Holmes, and was quoted this week week saying: “Is the heroic role unisex? Or does it mean there is an area of life which remains unexplored, which contain stories which remain untold?”

She phrases it rather as she might have written one of her essays when she was an undergraduate at Cambridge. But I sense that underneath the convoluted verbiage she is asking “Why can’t actresses play some of the classic roles written for men?”  To which one might reasonably respond: “You can do Sherlock Holmes, but also let Ian McKellen can play Mr Marple.”

Her point though is a good one. Actresses should be allowed to play more of the great classic male roles. It has happened, of course, with Fiona Shaw famously playing Richard the Second at the National Theatre, and only last year there was an all-female Julius Caesar with Frances Barber as Caesar and Harriet Walker as Brutus. But there have been relatively few such examples.

The roles need to be carefully selected. When I last chatted to Fiona Shaw I suggested that she might play Hamlet, a suggestion she dismissed, replying: “Hamlet is a play about a boy and his mother.” And while that is one of the more concise examples of literary criticism, she is sort of right — which is a challenge for Maxine Peake who is to play the role in Manchester later this year.

But there are other classic roles in which gender is not so stressed, in which romance, or a mother-son relationship, are not key parts of the plot, and which have no real impediment to women playing them. The stage currently has no shortage of Dames. I’d love to see Dame Helen or Dame Judi or Dame Maggie or Dame Eileen or non-Dame Vanessa attempt King Lear. Prospero, which Dame Helen has indeed played on screen, is another part perfect for our more mature leading actresses, as are some modern classic roles such as The Caretaker in Pinter’s play.

It’s easy to invite ridicule if one takes the concept too far — should Uncle Vanya become Auntie Vanya? — but the fact is that many classical roles can cross the gender boundary with no detrimental effect on the play, and genuine fascination for the audience in the interpretation a great actress can bring. The prospect is hugely exciting, if theatre and film have the courage to embrace it.

Royalty at the ballet

In a discussion of the Queen’s musical tastes in parts of the press the other day, it was noted that she did not share her sister’s love of ballet. I can shed a little light on the late Princess Margaret’s attendance at the Royal Ballet. She was indeed a big fan and went more often than people realised. This was because she didn’t always use the Royal Box, being happy to allow sponsors and other special guests to use it. All well and good so far...however, when it was the interval and she had a call of nature she would only use the lavatory attached to the Royal Box, I am informed. So the sponsors and special guests having a bite to eat would fall silent, amazed, as a princess wafted past, spent a minute or two in the next room, and, after sponsors and special guests had heard the sound of the chain flushing, wafted back again. The interval could be more memorable than the performance.

How not to heckle

British film director Steve McQueen must have been startled to be heckled by a critic when he picked up an award from the New York Critics Circle this week for his acclaimed new movie 12 Years A Slave. Film critic Armand White shouted at him: “You’re an embarrassing doorman and garbage man. F*ck you. Kiss my ass.” Both the film and Mr McQueen will survive the barrage of insults. But I am interested in the idiosyncratic wording that Mr White chose. “Kiss my ass” we’re pretty familiar with. “Garbage man” on the other hand feels rather patronising to the good refuse collection folk and somewhat politically incorrect. It would be an unwise heckle on these shores. As for “embarrassing doorman”, sorry that’s a new one to me. But I’ll try it for size. Next time someone annoys me, I will glare, look daggers and snarl “You embarrassing doorman.” That’ll put them in their place. Maybe.

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