Blog: Why Shakespeare’s male characters should be for anyone to “get their mitts on” – regardless of gender

Won’t someone please think of the men? Why one AYT critic took issue with the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish’s plea for women to steer clear of Shakespeare’s male roles.

Like Dominic Cavendish, I am a white, male theatre critic. Unlike Dominic Cavendish, I do not believe that female actors should “get their mitts off male actors’ parts” as he so petulantly demanded in a Telegraph piece responding to Tamsin Greig’s “marvellous” (his word, but I agree) performance as Malvolia in the National Theatre’s new Twelfth Night. Let’s get a few things straight.

First of all, Shakespeare didn’t think about the gender breakdown of his plays in the way that we do. Only male actors appeared on the Elizabethan and Jacobean public stages. That means that every actor playing a female character in Shakespeare’s England was performing gender. Cross-gender casting is about as Shakespearean as theatrical practices get. Should our leading female actors be kept from the most challenging, thrilling Shakespearean male roles when 17th century male actors had free rein of the best female ones?

Cavendish doesn’t say his problem is with directors making male characters female. Would he object to a man playing Malvolio as Malvolia in drag? It sounds more like seems he’s taking issue with women playing male roles, full stop, regardless of whether the audience reads those characters as male or female. That’s not theatre criticism, that’s sexism.

I too saw Glenda Jackson’s Lear at the Old Vic, Gillian Bevan’s Cymbeline at the Barbican, Harriet Walter’s Prospero at the Donmar Warehouse. Why is Greig’s deliriously excellent Malvolia the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Cavendish? Is it because Greig’s Malvolia experiments explicitly with sexuality as well as gender? A daring step too far for Cavendish? But then Cavendish praised Emma Rice’s reconfiguring of Helena as a gay male Helenus in her A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe last summer, so he didn’t have an issue with a queer male take on a straight female role.

Lastly, I just don’t understand why Cavendish would hook his condemnation on a performance that he claimed to love less than twenty-four hours earlier. In his review, he praised Greig’s casting to the skies (even declaiming that, “the gender switcheroo works well” and that “the feminine pronouns don’t sound like a major sacrilege”). What theatre critic in his, or her, right mind would wish to consign an enjoyable, inventive, thought-provoking production into oblivion, for any reason? Would Cavendish really have preferred to see an inferior male actor take on the role of Malvolio in place of the extraordinary Greig simply on principle (if you can use that word to describe the foundations of his shaky claims)? I would urge all theatregoers to go see Tamsin Greig in Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night. I would also urge those individuals playing pretend-critic to get their mitts off the art form they claim to respect.