Twelfth Night: A Gender Experiment (opposite gender cast), The Rose Playhouse

Most Shakespeare I see is performed with the actors’ genders matching that of the characters they play. Sometimes I see token cross-gender or gender-blind casting within an own-gender cast, sometimes all-male productions and less often, all-female productions (I wrote about the scarcity of all-female Shakespeare companies in the UK for The Shakespeare Standard last month). What I hadn’t seen however, was a completely cross-gendered production. As part of a gender experiment, actor/director Natasha Rickman stages Twelfth Night: A Gender Experiment four ways: all-female, all-male, same gendered and cross-gendered. Rather than seeing all four, I went for the most rare of the options out of curiosity, which was satisfied by excellent performances and a 90-minute edit with plenty of fun and energy. I’m now tempted to see the remaining three as I can’t decipher quite what Rickman seeks to prove or disprove with her experiment, but the questions surrounding the nature of the experiment did not dampen the enjoyment of the evening.

A cast of seven, three men, three women and a sock puppet, play all parts. There are the same number of men and women in all four versions, supporting Equity’s goal for 50/50 gender representation in theatre. Rickman is a RADA grad, as are most of her cast so handle Shakespeare’s text easily. Julia Goulding is an outstanding, versatile Orsino, Sir Andrew and Feste, using accents to clearly differentiate her characters. Shauna Snow is, hands down, the best Malvolio I have ever seen – serpentine and androgynous, but utterly buffoonish upon discovery of Maria’s planted letter and vulnerable after her release from prison. Henry Gilbert is a lovely Olivia, feminine but not helpless. Christopher Logan’s Viola has a hard, threatening edge when fending off Olivia’s advances, rare in a female playing the role. There is a notable lack of racial diversity, though. This cast is all white and the actors that make up the rest of the company appear to be as well, or at least look like it in the small, black & white photographs in the copied programme.

Sorcha Corcoran clothes the women in costumes inspired by Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s skinny jeans, shirts and braces, showing masculinity without hiding feminine features. The men wear dresses, but don’t hide their short hair with wigs. Though they still play the gender of the characters, Rickman doesn’t strive for realism in design or performance, which works well for this play that has such a heavy focus on gender. She indicates gender with the costume rather than playing it, creating a self-referential style more in keeping with Shakespeare’s original performance practice than contemporary productions that seek total naturalism. Also, she draws on stereotypes to create the roles; there is a heavy dose of Commedia dell’arte in the characters’ movements, which would have been a large influence on Shakespeare’s comedic characters in both writing and performance. The overall feel is light, funny and camp from both the men and women, with any references to the characters’ genders heightened due to the reversed casting. Combined with a good sense for pace and timing, the 90 minutes feel more like a relaxed hour filled with laughter and music.

Rickman uses diagonals well on the small stage, but doesn’t place much action around the rest of the Rose’s site despite the tea lights scattered around the pool and back wall. Sir Andrew and Viola’s almost-fight is oddly conducted with tree branches, which feel out of place. There’s a good dose of music and a jig during Feste’s final song, ending the evening with a flourish and reinforcing the sheer joy of Shakespeare’s comedies. This is one of The Rose Playhouse’s stronger offerings, and a rare opportunity to see a cast with impressive credits perform Shakespeare in an intimate space, regardless of any gender “experiments” the production seeks to conduct.

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