Sarah Sands: Is any woman man enough to play Miss Trunchbull?

Related Topics

The inspired casting of Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, one of the year's greatest performances, owes something to the RSC's employment policies. Casting has to be blind to sex and race. Now I am not sure whether a woman could ever play the role again – or, indeed, anyone else but Mr Carvel. It is his role, in the same way that Mark Rylance is now synonymous with Johnny "Rooster" Byron in Jerusalem. The soft-voiced, sadistic, sports-mad headmistress with her leather coat and whistle is a glorious creation.

Dennis Kelly, who adapted the book, is true to its cruelty and violence, and the director, Matthew Warchus, told me at the Evening Standard theatre awards last week that he did not want the show to be a pantomime. Carvel is too menacing to be music hall and does not try to befriend the audience, although he does seduce them.

Yet Matilda does follow some pantomime traditions. Good triumphs over evil and the show is dominated by his female impersonation. It is in the spirit of commedia dell'arte, and perhaps a sign of the times that the two theatrical smash hits of the year, One Man, Two Guvnors and Matilda have something of the street carnival about them. The creative team behind Matilda even considered using puppets rather than children. Commedia dell'arte took root in response to political and economic crises of the 16th century. Passing round a hat raised more money than performing to an empty theatre.

This Christmas, the public needs cheering up. Put away your subtlety and angst. We want laughter and comforting resolution. For this season, Hackney does not evoke social deprivation but panto. And we may be on Skid Row, but we have not lost our twin British talents for cross-dressing and double entendres, being a nation with no rivals in the arena of sexual disguise and repression. Cross-dressing began as a theatrical response to the social convention that it was unseemly for women to appear on stage. Shakespeare wrote in some superb cross-dressing heroines: Viola in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in As You Like It – boys playing girls dressed as boys.

In the Victorian age, theatre again reflected a social issue. Women were able to play their own sex, and men reacted to this by creating the female impersonator. The humour lay in the depiction of women as old, ugly and sexually predatory. If one were feeling humourless, one might trace society's fear of and derision towards older women to Widow Twankey.

I don't think the French will ever embrace the pantomime dame as we do. Neither do they have the English speaking gift for "glamour drag". Mae West is said to have borrowed her line "come up and see me some time" from the great American drag queen Bert Savoy. A better line was his last when, caught in a storm, he observed: "Goodness, ain't Miss God cuttin' up?" He was struck down by lightning.

Cross-dressing is not just for theatre folk. The aristocracy have always been mad for it, to the point where it must surely appear in Downton Abbey. The butchest – army officers, firemen, rugby players – seem to find it the funniest: I understand many of our Royal Marines cannot resist stockings and tutus in their leisure time. Christopher Hitchens makes a convincing case for the influence of boarding schools on our culture. All I know is, if I see a great cross-dresser, I am under an English heaven.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'

React Now

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

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

1st Line Service Desk Analyst

£27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Women-only train carriages would be an insult to both sexes  

Women-only carriages would be an insult to both sexes

Katie Grant
Women-only carriages would be an insult to both sexes  

Women-only carriages would be an insult to both sexes

Katie Grant
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style