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With Twelfth Night: A Gender Experiment, the Rose Theatre on Bankside offers an exciting and genuinely experimental approach to cross-gendered Shakespeare. During the month-long season, the company of twelve performs four differently gendered permutations in rep: “cast play own gender”, “cast play opposite gender”, “all-female cast” and “all male cast”. Each production involves a 90-minute version of the play performed by a cast of six, and director Natasha Rickman brings inventive solutions to limitations of time and cast size: parts are doubled (or even tripled), a change of hat or accent marks a change of role, and characters are assumed or shrugged off mid-scene. On the night I attend, the all-female cast perform an energetic, entertaining, and occasionally farcical version of Twelfth Night, bringing playfulness to the play’s world of disguises and mistaken identities, and making the most of the staging possibilities offered by the atmospheric venue.
Playing with gender in performances of Shakespeare is nothing new. Shakespeare’s Globe regularly offers “original practices” productions with an all-male cast, and experimented with all-female productions during its 2003 season; Propeller uses only male actors; and Maxine Peake is the latest in a long line of female Hamlets. The Twelfth Night experiments continue this tradition of re-gendering Shakespeare, engaging with a new wave of theatrical interest in cross-gendered Shakespeare that is closely allied to fourth wave feminism: Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female history plays at the Donmar; a recent all-female Richard III at the Rose; the recent project on “Shakespeare and Gender” led by the Young Vic Directors’ Programme and the London Shakespeare Centre; the new Reversed Shakespeare Company, who reverse the gender of Shakespeare’s characters (rather than the actors). All-female productions and cross-gendered roles have been viewed (sometimes negatively) as providing opportunities for female actors in plays with predominantly male casts, but they have the potential to offer much more than this. In an article on her experiences playing the King in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Henry IV at the Donmar, Harriet Walter writes:
“[W]hen the cast are all women, we can look beyond gender to our common humanity. Shakespeare expressed this humanity better than anyone. He just didn’t always include women in the frame. One of the main purposes behind these Donmar productions is for all classes of women to feel they own, belong to and have a stake in our history and our culture – and what better place to take that on than in a Shakespeare history play?”
Cross-gendering a Shakespearean history play allows female actors to engage concerns of kingship and nationhood, to perform leadership, violence and acts of war. An all-female Twelfth Night is a very different project. In the part of Viola, the play already offers a female actor the opportunity to inhabit a male role, assume a male voice, and enjoy (if briefly) the freedom, mobility, and agency accorded a man in the world of the play. What’s striking about an all-female production is that it draws attention to the fact that Viola’s impersonation of masculinity must ultimately be unsuccessful: she may assume the appearance of her brother Sebastian, but unlike him, she lacks the training (or inclination) to fight Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and is close to admitting “how much I lack of a man”. When both the actors are women, the differences, as well as the similarities, between Viola and her brother are reinforced.
Yet this production also highlights the extent to which Viola is not the only character that fails at performing masculinity – Sir Andrew reveals himself to be equally unable to impersonate the “manly” behaviour required of him. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable elements of this production is its sense of gender as performative. Sir Toby and Sebastian (both played with lecherous gusto by Elizabeth Andrewartha) are ‘performing’ their masculinity just as Viola must – and both Malvolio and Sir Andrew fail to achieve a successful performance of masculinity, not because of their sex, but because of their ambition or cowardice.
Fascinatingly, even the one female actor playing a female-only role, Bethan Cullinane as Olivia, highlights the performativity of her gender; Cullinane is an excellent Olivia, hilarious and moving in turns, but many of her funniest or most poignant choices echo Mark Rylance’s performance of the same role in the Globe’s 2013 “original practices” production. Like Rylance, she draws out the comic potential of Olivia’s cry of “most wonderful” when she sees her love Cesario next to his “double” Sebastian, expressing not just surprise, but delight, at the sight of the two identical youths. She echoes Rylance’s comic business with the ring – when Olivia pretends to “return” a ring from Cesario, but finds that because it is her own ring, it sticks to her finger – and his vocal embarrassment at having asked the attractive young stranger “What is your parentage?” These echoes reinforce the sense that all actors (and characters) are “playing” at gender, whether the cast are playing their ‘own’ gender or not.
An interesting (if perhaps unintentional) aspect of this is that the convincing chemistry between Olivia and Viola/Cesario (played with an appealing innocence by Maia Alexander) diminishes the appeal of the Orsino/Viola pairing. This is in part a result of the necessity of doubling roles, which gives Julia Goulding, who also plays Feste and Sir Andrew, little time to establish Orsino’s semi-unconscious attraction to Cesario alongside his conscious passion for Olivia. In a production where gender is play (even if, as for Viola, it is increasingly desperate play), and sexuality is fluid, a Viola-Olivia pairing begins to seem as plausible as any other.
The Rose is an excellent (if chilly) location for this experiment – not only because, as the site of an Elizabethan theatre, it reminds the audience of how the original all-male performances of Shakespeare’s plays necessarily played with gender, but also because the production makes excellent use of the idiosyncratic structures of the playing space. The area behind the expanse of water that covers the archaeological remains of the original Rose Theatre becomes the shores of Illyria, where first Viola, and then her brother Sebastian, are ashed ashore in a strange land. This then becomes the spot where Malvolio (played with verve and pathos by Shuna Snow) practises “behaviour to his own shadow” – a shadow that, with excellent comic timing, is thrown up on the wall behind him. Later, it becomes the cell where the “mad” Malvolio is sequestered, suggesting his downfall as the inevitable result of his pretensions. Sight lines can be a problem with this use of the space, but this is a small quibble: the alienating effect of the split playing space – which makes it easy to believe that Viola and Sebastian are strangers in a strange land and helps maintain a comic distance from Malvolio’s sufferings – more than makes up for any temporary obstruction.
The estrangement of the scenes across the water also highlights the intimacy of the scenes in the main space, an intimacy that works particularly well in the scenes of Malvolio’s gulling, where Toby and Maria (a coquettish Clare Humphrey) are hiding behind the audience, and so we too become complicit in the trick. This reinforces the sense of uneasiness in the final scene, when Malvolio turns, not to the other characters, but to the audience, to cry “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” The pared-back staging and simple, interchangeable costumes and properties reinforce the focus on the actor-audience dynamic, while Goulding’s beautiful singing as Feste, coupled with the harmonies of the rest of the cast, and the engaging jig at the end, heighten the sense of otherworldliness in this topsy-turvy version of Illyria.
In performing single-sex and cross-gendered versions of the play alongside a “cast play own gender” performance, the Twelfth Night gender experiment playfully interrogates how cross-gendering can illuminate or transform Shakespeare’s plays. In this all-female production, Natasha Rickman, along with the excellent and energetic cast, brings a version of Twelfth Night that engages, amuses, disconcerts and entertains. My only disappointment is that I haven’t yet seen all four nights of experimentation, and I’m delighted that the run continues for the rest of October.
Twelfth Night: A Gender Experiment continues until October 30. Tickets are £12 (£1o concessions).