Byline: NICHOLAS DE JONGH
As the summer season at Shakespeare's Globe presents all-female productions of Richard III and The Taming Of The Shrew, Nicholas de Jongh looks into this daring reversal of traditional Elizabethan all-male theatre
They are changing sex at Shakespeare's Globe this season. Never before has our modern stage been so full of sensational cross-dressers in single-sex productions. As a result women are being given opportunities they have not enjoyed before. Not only will actresses take on leading male roles in Richard III and The Taming Of The Shrew, but all the other male characters will be played by females as well. Even the thought of what we will soon see on the Globe stage makes me smile in anticipation. A Richard III played entirely by women may sound absurd, but in an age when some women take to power, and on rare occasions, to extreme cruelty, the idea may not seem that implausible after the first 10 minutes of shock-appeal.
The actress facing the biggest gender challenge will be Kathryn Hunter, who played King Lear in 1997 to some acclaim. She will take on the role of Richard, that master of murderous cruelty and ominous wit in the all-female Richard III. 'I'm finding Richard a tough battle, far tougher than Lear,' says Hunter.
'In Lear the gender thing didn't seem to matter so much as he was geriatric.
I'm a Richard who needs to subsume and consume all that I see.' She will then revert to her natural gender to play Katherina to Janet McTeer's Petruchio in an allgirl The Taming Of The Shrew. The sex-war is set to take on a novel, perhaps slightly lesbian ring. Who can tell when rehearsals have not even begun? 'I feel trepidation and excitement, but I'm more worried about not being sufficiently a man,' McTeer says. 'Even though I've got the stature and the voice I was a bit worried about the number of people who said that I'm perfect casting. But I can never match up to Richard Burton.' Of course, when it comes to men playing women's roles there is a long tradition of actors crossing the gender barrier. After all, youth or adolescent males played all the female roles in Shakespeare's day and continued to do so until the libidinous Charles II allowed women to act on stage. And the Globe's credo is founded upon reverting to Elizabethan practice, so there is historical sense in the men-only productions. From the two allmale productions of As You Like It - the famous one from the National Theatre's early days to Declan Donnellan's recent version - there have been men only too willing to slip into a woman's role.
And Mark Rylance, the Globe's artistic director, himself has seized the roles of Cleopatra in Antony And Cleopatra and Olivia in Twelfth Night during seasons gone by. But these women-only productions are something else.
Can the project be written off as a spectacular gimmick? …