Monday, 27 June 2016

Casting A Spell

by Robert Merriam


On the 17th June Michelle Terry had her opening night in the titular role in Henry V. The show is running until the 9th of July at the Regent’s Park open air theatre. From what I can see there is no outcry about this which is without doubt a good thing. I heard a radio interview with Terry in which she talked about how the creative team had opted not to change any of the dialogue in the play, keeping pronouns and names the same and simply disregard the gender of the lead. This provokes a lot of questions, and now I’m going to try to discuss some of them in a measured and inoffensive manner.

Upon hearing about the production the person I was with at the time asked “Why would you do that?”. My initial knee jerk answer was that it’s a laugh, by which I meant that it’s not something that needs justifying. Terry is a renowned Shakespearean actress so we might as well give her one of the great Shakespearean roles. Besides there are plenty of versions of the play with conventional casting choices the most recent of which only finished at the Barbican in January. This production simply offers an alternative interpretation of the text, which makes it no different from the oodles of re-envisionings that Shakespeare texts undergo every year. Why should we deprive good actors of good roles?

However, it could be argued that casting a woman in a male role requires more thought than we might at first consider. Does this alteration fundamentally change the character of the protagonist in a way that makes it transformative? Is the story of a female military leader who triumphs against a superior power through bravery and leadership different to a man doing the same. Terry has commented saying that they haven’t actually changed any of the text to suit the gender switch: she is playing Henry. She rightly points out that her genitalia are frankly irrelevant.

Interestingly in the production the role of princess Katherine is played by actor Ben Wiggins and from what I can gather online (I haven’t been able to see the production) he plays her as a woman.

But this leads us on to yet another layer of questions, does gender affect character? The team behind this production have clearly agreed for whatever reason that these archetypal roles, (brave king, beauiful princess) should not, at least this time, be detached from the gender traditionally assigned to them. One could question why then they would not cast men and women in these roles however this argument hinges on the assumption that men are better at portraying men than women are, which is ultimately a whole other argument. Perhaps a woman can understand a male character better as an outside observer of masculinity, or perhaps not.

There’s an argument to be made also that gender needn’t inform character. Henry V is set in the past and so is not a great example, but a play set in the present or future where gender roles  are less and less influential could, or should conceivably have roles written as gender-neutral. But if the purpose of art is, as the bard said, to hold “the mirror up to nature”, then our plays should include gendered people just as our lives do. But here I’m straying into philosophical territory and that’s not what I want to write about today.

I think perhaps the main concern for critics of this type of casting is that it can break the immersion of an audience member if a character’s words don’t seem to fit with the actor speaking them. If a character the audience regards as a ‘she’ is regularly referred to as a ‘he’ then that audience member is constantly reminded of the fact that this is a play with alternative casting which can only serve to break immersion and lessen investment. The same can be said for times when a black actor appears in a costume drama and appears out of place. This is difficult because although it seems pretty weak grounds for denying capable actors good roles it does beg the question; does this art exist for them or the viewer?

The reality of the matter is that Terry was cast for one or a combination of reasons: she was a genuine fit for the part, she added publicity potential, or the casting was statement against the lack of leading roles for women in British theatre. Discussing topics like this is certainly rocky ground but it is very encouraging to see next to  no outcry against the production of Henry V or other productions like it (Hamilton, King Lear etc.). It is clear to me that over the next few decades we will continue to explore the relevance or irrelevance of gender to character, perhaps shedding some light on the nature of gender in our own lives. And that can only be a good thing.

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