by Bradders: Nasty Woman
WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE MEN? WON’T SOMEONE *PLEASE* THINK OF THE MEN?!
No, I get it – I do. It must be really hard for straight, white, able-bodied, CIS-gendered, middle-class men, at the moment. Some might go so far as to say that they’re under attack. They can barely even speak anymore for fear of inviting the wrath of the politically correct, feminist thought police. And now their beloved theatre – once a safe space for watching MEN doing MANLY things – is at risk of becoming a hotbed of equality. IS NOTHING SACRED?!
If you haven’t read Dominic Cavendish’s eye-roll-inducing op-ed for the Telegraph, which begs female actors to “…get their mitts off male actors’ parts!”, then take a moment to read it here – I can wait…
The Feminist Thought Police
His argument (and I use the term loosely) appears to be that allowing women to take on roles from the classical male canon will result in the decline of the great male actor. Men are being “elbowed aside” so that women may get the chance to “feast on the best of drama”. Don’t get him wrong: he’s all for new ideas and a bit of the ole ‘equality’ – just don’t have our flagship subsidised theatre do anything that might pave the way for more diverse casting and set some sort of precedent, ok?
At best, the article reads as a fearful, snivelling whimper of conservative male entitlement, made palatable by a jovial tone and a smattering of *nudge nudge, wink wink* sexism. At worst, it’s a piece of clickbait designed to rile up readers on both sides of the debate (congratulations, Dom – you’ve certainly succeeded there) where the author cynically uses his privileged position to maintain the status quo for the sake of his paycheque.
So what does Cavendish – paragon of common sense – propose as an alternative? That theatres staging male-heavy, classical plays, redress the balance by commissioning compensating work with more parts for women. I don’t know about you, but I find this suggestion highly patronising. If we’re talking about Shakespeare (where only 16% of the parts are for women), are you really trying to justify denying women access to the remaining 84% of roles by suggesting that someone just writes a new play? A new play that will – on its first outing – compete with Shakespeare for critical acclaim, character depth, and audience appeal? Are you high?
Incidentally, the notion that women are taking over when it comes to Shakespeare is just plain wrong. As Dr Jami Rogers highlights: out of 26 Shakespearean productions staged in 2016, only seven of them had a woman in a traditionally male leading role. Furthermore, when you note that Harriet Walter played three out of these seven roles, and that two of the productions gender-swapped both leads (meaning that men were hardly missing out), we see that Cavendish’s claims of male actors being side-lined flounders in the face of evidence. But hey, why let those pesky facts get in the way of a good story? Facts schmacts, I say!
Equality Behind the Scenes
Another issue that Cavendish completely fails to engage with is that of equality behind the scenes. While plenty of women work in theatre, relatively few of them occupy the real positions of power, with female board members, artistic directors, directors, and producers all being outnumbered by their male counterparts by a ratio of 2:1 (in England’s top ten subsidised theatres, at any rate). This is also true of playwrights, with women writers only accounting for 31% of new work produced in 2013 . What’s more, the women playwrights who do have their work commissioned by the likes of the National and the Royal Court tend have their plays performed in the smaller auditoriums (thus reducing fees and profile), which further entrenches the message that we do not trust female voices with the big stuff.
Put simply: the under-representation of women at all levels of the creative process leads to under-representation of women on stage – both as characters and as actors. So when the odds are most definitely not ever in our favour, even for new writing, surely it’s even more crucial that we’re creative when casting the classics. As Elizabeth Freestone (former artistic director of Pentabus theatre company) puts it, this approach “will unlock all kinds of creative interpretations, and naturally feed in to all other areas – male playwrights writing female parts, more confidence in female creative teams”. Dreamy.
See, Dominic? The Thought Police can be quite reasonable, if you give them a chance…
What do we want?!
I do, however, agree with Cavendish on one point: that “Theatre-land is play-land”, where we can “let our imaginations run free”. If he genuinely believes this to be true, why, then, is he calling for the stifling of our collective imagination by limiting the casting of some of the most interesting and meaty roles ever written by gender? In the words of my old acting tutor, “I’ll take more!”. More diversity! More creativity! More imagination! I want my theatre to be a place where women are afforded the same opportunities as men; where the LGBTQI+ community has a voice; where disability is not rendered invisible; and where white-washing is relegated to the past.
But most of all? I want all of the privileged, white dudes who like to behave as if they’re being oppressed by the march towards equality (I’m looking at you, Piers Morgan) to take a long, hard look at themselves, think about what they’ve done, and then just… stop. No, really – STOP. It’s getting embarrassing now.