Gender-swapping in theatre: is it worth the effort?

By Florianne Humphrey

From modern adaptations to improvisation, from promenade to immersive theatre, plays are constantly pushing the boundaries for original ideas in an industry where new arrivals are jostling for attention.  Some of this freshness sours, such as Patrick Marber’s modern day interpretation of Don Juan that has been called ‘charmless and creepy’ by The Telegraph.  Some innovations, however, are riotously successful.

Gender-swapping in theatre is nothing new.  Sarah Bernhardt, for example, played Hamlet in Paris as early as the 1890s, whilst Castle Theatre Company even tried its hand at it last year with Virginia Woolf’s famous transgender text, Orlando.  Sometimes, however – and particularly with Shakespeare – flogging and dead horses come to mind, with the gender swap seemingly nothing more than an affectation, a timid effort towards a progressive USP.  Not so for the Pleasance Theatre’s Posh, where a play charged with boorish masculinity was performed by an all-female cast.

Posh, written by Laura Wade, recently resurfaced on the big screen as The Riot Club, featuring famous faces such as Sam Claflin and Max Iron, about the debauched romps of ten Oxford students, parodying the infamous former club of many of our country’s MPs.  The misogynistic, racist, elitist, and entitled attitude that permeates the play is best summed up with the joke: ‘How do you make an Eton mess? Tell him he’s got into Bristol!’

As a fan of the film and used to an all-male cast, I initially did not know what to expect with Pleasance’s Posh. Would the actresses have short hair and shoulder pads, husky voices and a smattering of stubble? Or would they gender swap the characters instead, therefore changing the entire dynamic and message of the play?

In fact, it was none of the above. The actresses did play male parts, complete with the crude laddishness, however, they were dressed more androgynously than masculine.  There was still a nod to the feminine in their dress, even if not in their actions and words.  The actresses wore the Riot Club tails, the matching uniforms lending both to the sense of impenetrable exclusivity and comedic ridiculousness.  The suits, however, were cinched in at the waist and tight-fitting on the trousers so that, whether curvy or skinny, tall or short, there was no doubt as to the womanly figures beneath the distinctively masculine outfits.  The shoes, although gender neutral black boots, had a heel on them, and the actresses with long hair wore it loose and styled.  Androgyny is more gender fluid than cross-dressing – these actresses were not conforming to any particular gender strictures, but melding them all together as if to say ‘your club can’t be that gender exclusive if we’re wearing your tails and still managing to look powerfully feminine.’

The music, too, was a nod to androgyny.  Whilst the characters rioted to the Sex Pistol’s ‘God Save the Queen’ after a rousing rendition of the National Anthem, the musical thread was songs from all-girl rock band The Runaways. Like the actresses on stage, The Runaways wore androgynous clothes, where their tight leather jeans and ragged hair were either a symbol of their effeminate masculinity or masculine femininity. With rock itself a male-dominated genre, the between-scenes head banging perfectly encapsulated the wild, raucous club dinner and the nature of the casting itself. And, of course, the artwork, often ignored but just as important, did not shy away from bright pink letters and a purple lipstick kiss, whilst retaining a spiky, punkish font.  This, along with the music, the casting, and the clothing, was traditional femininity cut with a sharper edge and with the volume turned right up.

It is great that gender-swapping is now in vogue in theatre, and that we are realising that gender, as feminist critic Judith Butler theorised, is just a construct. However, it can sometimes seem contrived, or just an easy way to get good headlines.  Not that everything has to have a meaning because, as Oscar Wilde said, art can be ‘for art’s sake’ – but having a man prance around on stage in a dress for pure entertainment value undermines the decision, and will remain as superficial as the costume if it does nothing to enhance the meaning of the play.  Making Romeo wear woman’s clothes and Juliet wear man’s clothes does not do much by way of impact, but casting both roles as women would be far more significant.

In Posh, gender-swapping was handled intelligently and sensitively, with care and an obvious great deal of thought. Gender, throughout the play, was not an issue, as even the crude jokes about the prostitute ‘doing’ all ten of them at once under the table lost the masculine power when they were formed by the mouth of a woman with a cascading mane of hair.  The focus was realigned, which allowed the true message to come through: Posh, as the name suggests, is not about gender, but about class.  The words were certainly masculine, but the character’s ignorance and snobbery came not from biological or even constructed gender but from class hierarchy.

At the end of the play, coming full circle, an ex-Riot Club member turned MP was offering both a job and a better lawyer to one of the Oxford students who had almost killed a pub landlord.  Both wearing the most androgynous clothes of the whole play, blazers, chinos, and shirts, the conversation was not about the sexist, traditionally masculine behaviour of the Riot Club dinner but how this is eventually reduced to make way for a more subtle, insidious form of control: politics.

‘People like us don’t make mistakes,’ said the MP, ensuring that even the Oxford student’s criminal behaviour was but a cog in the wheel of his eventual political success.  Gender is a player but, as politicians like Theresa May, Hillary Clinton, and Margaret Thatcher prove, the more threatening element of corruption, which perhaps has more of a stronghold on our society, is class and politics.

Photograph: Darren Bell, via Twitter 

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