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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: July ::
Seattle All-Female Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0698  Wednesday, 26 July 2006

From: 		Robert Projansky <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 26 Jul 2006 01:02:57 -0700
Subject: 17.0459 Seattle All-Female Hamlet
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0459 Seattle All-Female Hamlet

In ancient times (on May 17) David Evett wrote:

"I'd be curious to know how much experience Bob Projansky has to support 
his categorical distaste for cross-gendered casting in Shakespeare. I 
agree that when undertaken for effect, it can be pretty disastrous. The 
Actors' Shakespeare Project, the professional Shakespeare company in 
Boston with which I am associated, has, I think, used it to advantage. 
Our motives are partly what Bob calls "desperation," and partly a desire 
to give women opportunities to perform. Our repertory company has 14 
members, of whom 6 are women; they range in age from 30 to 50-something. 
Our Equity agreement calls for 7-9 contracts per show. We do 3 
productions a year; the rule of thumb is that everybody gets roles in 2 
shows. That means that most productions have to find roles for 4 women, 
of whom only 1 or 2 are suitable for characters such as Helena or 
Cordelia. They are all gifted, experienced, intelligent, inventive 
performers, however, and without them the company, as a company, would 
not exist."

I haven't responded because I've been too busy, not because I've been 
chased away by opposition, but I do want to satisfy David's curiosity: I 
have played in several cross-gendered Shakespeare plays and seen many 
more, sometimes female-playing-male, some with the character's gender 
changed. Indeed, I've just finished playing Duncan and the Porter in an 
excruciating Macbeth in which women played 10 male roles. Worse, they 
played them not as men but as women and girls. My poor old Duncan had to 
say "We will establish our estate upon / Our eldest, Malcolm . . . " 
with Ms. Malcolm standing there in a tight miniskirt, high clunky heels 
and net stockings and flaunting about half a cubit of cleavage.

Someone sneered at my original post with a "barefoot and pregnant" 
crack. Is it misogynistic to want to see WS's work performed as he wrote 
it instead of twisted out of shape to satisfy someone's political agenda?

My thesis: Shakespeare is much abused in production today, and messing 
with gender is one way it's done. Only one other member seems to agree 
with me, and I agree with him: casting women as men just doesn't work, 
especially not in lead roles. Of the many of both kinds of switches I've 
seen, there has been only one that I thought was any good. About fifteen 
years ago I saw a WT with a woman who was funny as the old 
shepherd(ess), but that's the best I can say for the practice. (Ariels 
and Pucks don't count; I suppose your androgynous sprite is legitimately 
playable by a woman.)

Cross-gendering, no matter how interesting the director may claim the 
experiment to be, is forcing WS's round pegs into square holes. Gender 
differences are just too immense (current surgical alchemy attempts 
notwithstanding) and the stretch from her to him is just too far to go, 
too difficult to scale -- insurmountable, really -- and a waste of 
resources. Although I have seen a few men who could pass for women; I 
have never seen a woman pass for a man (except for Tracey Ullman, who 
can do anything in a short sketch). The least competent male actor in 
town can play a man better than any non-Tracey Ullman woman on earth. 
Why use a talented actress to get tenth-rate masculinity? Why would you 
want your audience thinking for two or three hours about how well she 
is/isn't doing as a guy?

Rosalind and Viola and Portia couldn't possibly get away with it in the 
real world; but it's part of those plays that we agree to the pretense 
that they are fooling everyone around them even though they don't begin 
to fool us. It's a theatrical convention, as with the COE twins. Of 
course we can see those Dromios aren't identical; that's how we know as 
soon as one enters that he's the wrong Dromio, but we don't grumble that 
they don't really look alike; we go along with it. It is not a 
convention, however, to pretend that this woman butching it up as Hamlet 
is really a guy, and it's never going to be.

And changing the character's sex is even worse. Forcing something into a 
play against what WS wrote is not enriching; it's impoverishing. And if 
it makes you think, it makes you think about things that have little or 
nothing to do with WS's play. Worse, it's disrespectful to WS; to me 
it's like interpreting Michelangelo's Piet

 

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