Mark Lawson has written a piece in the Guardian about gender-swapped casting in Shakespeare. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/sep/23/shakespeare-gender-cross-dressing-acting-theatre
Given that this is by Mark Lawson, it hardly came as a surprise that it was riddled with elementary factual errors that could have been remedied by five minutes research. He confuses Olivia and Viola in Twelfth Night. Twice. He claims that it would be unthinkable for a woman to play the lead in The Caretaker. (it's been done by Miriam Karlin.) Also unimaginable, he writes, is a man in the title role of A Streetcar Named Desire. I'll let you think about that for a moment. Reacting to what Lawson meant to write, rather than what he actually wrote, (and isn't having to do that an indictment of his writing?), Philip C Kolin writes that there have been gender-swapped performances of Streetcar, including an all-female one, as well as one in which Blanche was played by the author's brother. Adding the fact that Tennessee Williams wrote Blanche as a gender-swapped reflection of himself makes this an unusually asinine point even for Lawson.
Anyway, while fun, criticising Lawson's lack of research is like shooting whales in a barrel while armed with a howitzer. He has in the past talked about Quatermass' effect on TV in the sixties, the decade in which it apparently debuted and Monty Python being emblematic of the subversive nature of BBC2. He also wrote a radio drama about Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain in which the play apparently shifted theatres wthout anyone noticing and characters quoted dialogue from Allo Allo five years before it debuted on TV. He also wrote a bizarre review of The End of Time, Tennant's swansong in Doctor Who, describing it as a rewrite of Hamlet, based on nothing very much. (Although, with hindsight, the line "The rest is silence" does seem to carry a meaning not previously clear.)
What is more disturbing in Lawson's article on "genital-ignorant" casting (and dear Lord, the implications of that phrase for Lawson's thought processes) is the attitudes expressed in it. It really does seem to carry everything necessary for a game of diversity bingo.
Despite knowing - and writing - that female roles in Shakespeare's times would have been played by men, Lawson suggests that Shakespeare would have seen casting women in male roles as "having gone too far the other way." He argues that Maxine Peake's production of Hamlet, in which Peake plays Hamlet as male, while the normally male role of Polonius is changed to Polonia, might confuse audiences. This is skewered by a nicely laconic reply BTL, which reads
Saw this production last week.
It wasn't a problem.
Maybe Northern audiences are smarter.
He also argues that The Tempest and King Lear cannot be played with Lear and Prospero gender-swapped because the gender politics are too specific to father-daughter relationships. Since he admits that gender-swapped productions of both have happened - indeed the article is illustrated by a picture of Helen Mirren as Prospera - and since Lawson utterly fails to cite any of these gender politics, other than to state that Shakespeare was "a man of such psychological insight that he anticipated Freud’s insights", I don't see this as a convincing argument. By the by, does Lawson not possess a thesaurus? Or does he just really like the word insight?
He goes on to cite gender-swapped performances whch add framing devices to explain the casting - such as the production of Julius Caesar where the conceit is that it is staged in a women's prison or the all female King Lear which is revealed to have been the "senile reverie of an elderly resident of a nursing home". He praises these as making the casting more "plausible". It's an interesting concept that revealing "It was all a dream" is apparently a way to improve King Lear.
Lawson writes that the two justifications for gender-swapped casting are "a relative shortage of major roles for women and a desire to freshen up overfamiliar texts". He goes on to point out that Shakespeare wrote more than two roles for women, implying that Maxine Peake should go away and play all Shakespeare's other female roles instead of Hamlet. He further adds that "if the governing aim of a production is to make the play seem different, perhaps those involved ought to be doing a different play",thus dealing with the second of his two straw men, although perhaps not fully to his own satisfaction, as he later returns to add that equal opportunities "should never be applied to theatrical casting", suggesting that gender-neutral casting is nothing more than a politically correct box-ticking exercise.
If Lawson is so against changing the original staging of Shakespeare, then presumably he feels that productions should not be set in changed time periods. Ones like the Branagh 19th century-set film of Hamlet or Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine's film of Richard III, with Richard as a pre-WW2 Oswald Mosley figure. You know what? None of this gets mentioned.
The other thing that doesn't get mentioned is - why would you want to deprive audiences of the opportunity to see some of the greatest roles ever written played by some of the greatest actors ever. Helen Mirren as Prospero/Prospera? Why the hell not? I never saw Frances de la Tour's Hamlet, which I regret. But at least some people did.
Oddly enough, Lawson seems to be quite happy with men playing female roles. He cites Mark Rylance as Cleopatra at the Globe, athough predictably not mentioning the all-female Richard III I saw there which was overseen by Rylance. He also mentions Adrian Lester as Rosalind in As You Like It, approving that he apparently studied women "as closely as he might have hung around the RAF if hired to play a fighter pilot".
The implication is that a male Cleopatra returns to the original casting traditions of the Elizabethan theatre. One would think it would be harder to justify casting a man in something from a later period. Or not. Lawson writes:
"I greatly look forward to David Suchet’s Lady Bracknell in Adrian Noble’s revival of The Importance of Being Earnest next year because Wilde’s grande-dame is a sort of pantomime dame, a part traditionally cast as transvestite, and Suchet is an impeccably detailed actor who will bring to being an aristocratic lady the level of attention he brought to becoming Belgian in Poirot."
A few thoughts come to mind. One is that the main technique Suchet has revealed for playing Poirot is that he used to insert a 2p coin between his buttocks to help achieve the right walk. I would suggest never asking him if he has any small change. Also - would this level of attention be on a par with Adrian Lester apparently hanging around some women? There is also the implication that the likes of Helen Mirren or Maxine Peake are less "impeccably detailed actors."
I was wondering what this frantic scrabbling for ways to logically justify an illogical bias reminded me of. And then I remembered the threads on Gallifrey Base about the possibility of a female Doctor. Someone posted on there that there were no actresses who had the kind of gravitas needed to play the Doctor without looking ridiculous. Passing over the idea that looking ridiculous is not an intrinsic part of playing the Doctor, I suggested a few - Helen Mirren, Tamsin Greig, Sarah Lancashire, Gillian Anderson, Gwendoline Christie, Maggie Smith, Fiona Shaw, Nicola Walker, Alice Krige, Lindsay Duncan, Michelle Dockery, Lena Headey, Katherine Parkinson... The response was - no. they'd look ridiculous.
And there we have it. One of the leading cultural commentators in the UK (I typed that through gritted teeth) tries to argue against gender-swapped casting and the best he can do is to reduce himself to the level of an internet troll. There is something reassuring in that.