Strong women do not deter audiences

Complex female roles have been around since ancient times – from Phaedra to the monstrous Mum in That Face

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The Independent Online

Does Vicky Featherstone speak for us all when she says “we don’t know whether we’re very good yet at watching a female narrative”?  Audiences who queued up for and gave standing ovations to Gillian Anderson’s Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Imelda Staunton in Gypsy, or Kristin Scott Thomas’s Electra might disagree. 

The current obsession with a certain Hamlet doesn’t cancel out recent smash-hits like those three, or like Here Lies Love, the Imelda Marcos musical, or Lesley Manville’s award-winning turn in Ghosts. Lia Williams and Jessica Brown Findlay so wowed the crowds in a gory Oresteia that it transferred straight to the West End, all three hours and 40 minutes of it. Last week, Gugu Mbatha-Raw won over critics with her Nell Gwynn, tomorrow Kate Fleetwood debuts as Medea at the Almeida and I’ve a feeling Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard, just announced, will sell quite well. 

Flawed women the lot of them, but that won’t put audiences or critics off. Complex female roles have been around since ancient times – the line stretches all the way from Phaedra to the monstrous Mum in Polly Stenham’s sensational That Face. There isn’t a female Hamlet or Lear because women haven’t traditionally held power, or acted in the theatre. There is some catching-up to do, but in the meantime actresses can enjoy meaty roles like Cleopatra, Hedda Gabler or The Queen.

Audiences do not care about female-led narratives, they care about good plays, done well. If they were put off by wicked women, Chicago wouldn’t have lasted 15 years in the West End. 

Featherstone is currently staging the (excellent) testosterone fest Hangmen at the Royal Court. It is written by a man, directed by a man and men outnumber women in the cast by 10 to two. If she looked around, she would see it doesn’t have to be that way.