Response to Daily Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish: You are the thought police

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by Dr. Jami Rogers, University of Warwick

Dominic Cavendish can rest assured: he will not lose the opportunity to see his favourite (white) male actors in leading Shakespearean roles. After all, what producer would refuse Kenneth Branagh the chance to play Leontes in The Winter’s Tale or stop inviting Ralph Fiennes to work his way through the classical canon? The star system remains overwhelmingly skewed towards the (white) male and, as such, any (white) male classical actor who fancies it will most likely be first in line for a West End Shakespearean lead. Antony Sher has just played King Lear and Simon Russell Beale showed us his Prospero, to name two more male classical actors who are not exactly short of Shakespearean work. Cavendish’s opinion piece is misguided in its assertion that men are an endangered species on the classical stage – and somewhat light on facts.

Take Cavendish’s “men are being elbowed aside” by women remark. The fact that within the past year the four actors mentioned above (Branagh, Fiennes, Sher and Beale) have all played leading roles is in itself a complete refutation of Cavendish’s assertion. One of his examples of women in male roles is also somewhat skewed in the direction of fantasy. The RSC’s Cymbeline may have featured Gillian Bevan as the titular character, but Cymbeline’s consort was gender-swapped with James Clyde taking on the traditionally female role of the Queen in Melly Still’s production. It is difficult to see where the male Shakespearean actor was disadvantaged with this casting, apart from it having resulted in the female classical actress getting more lines for a change.

It is the sheer scale of Cavendish’s exaggeration that men are being “elbowed aside” in favour of women that is breathtaking. Even using anecdotal evidence from my own voracious theatre-going, there were comparatively few women taking on male Shakespearean leads in 2016. Out of the 26 productions listed below, only *five* actresses across *seven* plays took a job away from a man (I say with heavy irony, given two of these women were Glenda Jackson and Harriet Walter and another two were gender-swapping both leads, so no male egos were unemployed as a result). That is 24% of the leading male roles I saw were played by women and 76% of them were played by men. We’re not even close to achieving parity with these statistics, even if the percentage is roughly equal to the male-female split in most plays since Shakespeare’s day.

Hamlet
RSC
Paapa Essiedu

Tempest
Globe, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Tim McMullan

Winter’s Tale
Globe, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
John Light

King Lear
Talawa Theatre Company
Don Warrington

Twelfth Night
Filter
Jonathan Broadbent

Taming of the Shrew
Custom/Practice
Martina Laird*
*Kate was played by a man

Cymbeline
RSC
Gillian Bevan*
*Queen was played by a man

King John
Rose Theatre, Kingston
Jamie Ballard

Midsummer Night’s Dream
Globe
Ewan Wardrop*
*Bottom – largest role in the play

Macbeth
Globe
Ray Fearon

Henry V
Open Air Theatre
Michelle Terry

Romeo and Juliet
Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company
Richard Madden

Midsummer Night’s Dream
Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
Kulvinder Ghir*
*Bottom – largest role in the play

Richard III
Almeida Theatre
Ralph Fiennes

Midsummer Night’s Dream
Theatre Royal, Bath
Phil Juptus

Much Ado About Nothing
Faction Theatre Company
Daniel Boyd

King Lear
RSC
Antony Sher

Much Ado About Nothing
RSC
Edward Bennett

Winter’s Tale
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Rob Edwards

King Lear
Old Vic Theatre
Glenda Jackson

Hamlet
Black Theatre Live
Raphael Sowole

Henry IV
Donmar Warehouse at King’s Cross Theatre
Harriet Walter

Tempest
Donmar Warehouse at King’s Cross Theatre
Harriet Walter

Julius Caesar
Donmar Warehouse at King’s Cross Theatre
Harriet Walter

Hamlet
Flute Theatre at Trafalgar Studios
Mark Arends

Love’s Labour’s Lost
RSC
Edward Bennett

Cavendish’s perception that women are dominating the Shakespearean stage in “men’s parts” is obviously unfounded in the light of these pesky facts. While it may seem to him that women are getting all the juicy roles, this is not to be confused with the over-abundance of press attention they have received. The press are interested in stories about some of this 24% precisely because it is far from the norm, although Cavendish seems to equate press coverage with normality. Woman, in this case, bites dog, which is a story – a man in a traditionally male role is so passé.

What the critic subverts in his op-ed by concentrating on the here and now is also a large swathe of theatrical history that contains female Hamlets from Sarah Bernhardt (1899) to Frances de la Tour (1979) to Maxine Peake (2014). That same theatrical history finds Ann Casson playing Arthur in King John at the Old Vic in 1941, Pippa Nixon’s Bastard in the same play in 2013 and countless female bodies as courtiers such as “Cornelia” in Gregory Doran’s 2008 Hamlet with David Tennant. To claim that women are taking men’s roles is to simultaneously render all the women that have come before voiceless and irrelevant, even the great Bernhardt herself.

But that is precisely the point. Dominic Cavendish employs an argument in his treatise that has been used for decades to marginalize black and Asian performers. In asserting that women “should get their mitts off male actors’ parts”, Cavendish posits the idea that the male canon should remain male, while companies such as the RSC commission new writing catering for and about women. (Erica Whyman, to her credit, has been doing this as part of her curation of the RSC’s new writing festivals in The Other Place.) But these initiatives have been tried before and they are not a replacement for equality at the top of the classical roles tree. When women – and minorities – have had to fight the establishment because they have been kept out of the top acting jobs (as defined, obviously, by our obsession with the male canon), women and minorities have set up their own companies and generated their own work. As Yvonne Brewster stated, “[Talawa’s policy was to give black actors work they weren’t being offered – and nobody was offering them the chance to do Shakespeare” so she offered Norman Beaton Lear. When you are marginalized because you are black, Asian or female, then you have to make your own work. Cavendish’s notion that new work should be commissioned for – reading between the lines – anyone who is not white and male – has been pursued ad nauseum. Companies like Monstrous Regiment, Talawa, Tara Arts and Temba recognized decades ago that representation matters and provided their own solution to the inequality at the top of the profession. While these movements edged open the door, those heavy doors were shut as quickly as they could be and normal (white male) service was resumed and women and minorities slipped off the casting ladder.

Pieces like Dominic Cavendish’s are dangerous because they provide a mirage that is blatantly untrue – in this case, that women are taking over the male canon and, therefore, we need to get our “mitts” off of Shakespearean roles because men are better at Shakespeare. If Cavendish was writing about ethnic minorities taking leading roles (and my list contains Paapa Essiedu, Don Warrington, Kulvinder Ghir, Martina Laird, Raphael Sowole and Ray Fearon) in the same way he talks about women (“mitts off”), his language would be deemed completely unacceptable.

Why has the white, male establishment turned on women? Because the glass ceiling is shattering and the few shards that have been dislodged are raining down on his reactionary parade. The truly baffling thing is the fact that we all have freedom of choice – if you don’t want to see our finest classical actresses playing male Shakespearean leads, you don’t need to buy a ticket. But by telling women to keep our “mitts” off these roles – and by implication censoring our freedom of choice, you have become the Thought Police.

Dominic Cavendish, keep your mitts off my freedom to choose. Ladies, keep playing whatever you want to. We will no longer be censored. Shakespeare is for us, too.

Dr. Jami Rogers is the creator of the British Black and Asian Shakespeare Performance Database and has been researching casting practices in contemporary performance. She is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Warwick and previously worked on the AHRC-funded Multicultural Shakespeare project at Warwick.

Laura Kressly on RssLaura Kressly on Twitter
Laura Kressly
Laura is a US immigrant who has lived in the UK since 2004. Originally trained as an actor with a specialism in Shakespeare, she enjoyed many pre-recession years working as a performer, director and fringe theatre producer. When the going got too tough, she took a break to work in education as a support worker, then a secondary school drama teacher. To keep up with the theatrical world, she started reviewing for Everything Theatre and Remotegoat in 2013. In 2015, Laura started teaching part time in order to get back into theatre. She is now a freelance fringe theatre producer and runs her independent blog, theplaysthethinguk.com.
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Laura Kressly on RssLaura Kressly on Twitter
Laura Kressly
Laura is a US immigrant who has lived in the UK since 2004. Originally trained as an actor with a specialism in Shakespeare, she enjoyed many pre-recession years working as a performer, director and fringe theatre producer. When the going got too tough, she took a break to work in education as a support worker, then a secondary school drama teacher. To keep up with the theatrical world, she started reviewing for Everything Theatre and Remotegoat in 2013. In 2015, Laura started teaching part time in order to get back into theatre. She is now a freelance fringe theatre producer and runs her independent blog, theplaysthethinguk.com.

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