Feature | No, Dominic Cavendish – You Are the Thought Police


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.

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