Role reversal

Shakespeare was originally performed by all-male casts but now two productions in the north are evening out the scales with Othello and Romeo being played by women

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Many of Shakespeare’s characters, from Viola in Twelfth Night to Portia in The Merchant of Venice, were cross-dressers. And during his time, his female characters were played by male actors. In a new twist on gender and the Bard Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester is hosting an all-female production of Romeo and Juliet, while in Liverpool Everyman’s take on Othello, the title role is being played by a woman.

The shows take a different approach to each other. Hannah Ellis Ryan, producer of Romeo and Juliet, says: “It struck us that gender is actually not an important theme in the play. There’s class, age, love, war – very universal ideas and themes. But the fact that Romeo is a guy and Juliet’s a girl feels like it doesn’t matter.”

What’s more important, though, is that the show gets to celebrate Manchester’s female acting talent. Ryan says: “Our team has spent the last few years not being able to cast the most talented people we see. If we’re doing auditions for a show, we employ one or two of the women – and every single woman who came through the door was amazing and could have done the job – and offer maybe five or six parts out to men. Obviously Shakespeare used to be performed by all-male casts. What better time to do one with all women?”

The text of the play is unchanged but the actors are given freedom to interpret their characters. Ryan says: “We’ve tried to keep a very open mind with gender. Obviously we live in a time when it’s a hot topic. It feels like we can apply that to the cast of this show and say: ‘If you feel like your character’s male, fantastic – you’re welcome to play them as male. If you feel like your character is a female, great.’ Basically we’re making gender as fluid as 2018 makes it.”

Over at the Liverpool Everyman, experienced Shakespearean actor Patrick Brennan is playing Iago alongside Golda Rosheuvel’s Othello. Tweaks have been made to the text so that the title character is explicitly a gay woman. But Brennan says: “Shakespeare’s such an extraordinary observer of human nature that everything I’m doing is in there anyway. It brings into focus Iago’s obsession about the ‘other’.

“In a traditional production, you might infer that Iago has feelings towards a male Othello. For our purposes, I’ve been working on the idea that Iago is both attracted to and repelled by Othello. It’s the fear of a gay woman, somebody he can’t have, to which is also added her being from a different, more exotic part of the world.”

For Brennan, casting a woman as Othello opens up all manner of possibilities. “It makes Othello an outsider in a traditionally male environment. We can play on Iago’s misogyny, too. He’s rather bitter and bleak about his own sex life and he’s overly fascinated with other people’s sex lives. He plays on people’s worst fears and on Othello’s jealousy about what Desdemona might be up to with Cassio.”

As Brennan sees it, greater equality of casting can only be a good thing. “There is an imbalance and there has been for years. There’s a lot of brilliant women performers but then there are fewer men who want to be actors. I think that will balance out but it will take time. It’s all up for grabs really and the stories of Shakespeare are everybody’s stories, whether they’re a man or a woman.”

The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is at Hope Mill, Manchester, 25-29 June. Othello is at Liverpool Everyman, until 10 July

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