Cross-gender casting in ‘Richard II’

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As part of their efforts to fundraise for the UK’s theatre industry during the coronavirus pandemic, the National Theatre released the 1997 TV movie Richard II on YouTube last week, with Fiona Shaw in the title role. With a woman playing the main role, this production is of course progressive and experimental, however, viewing it again 23 years after its original release exposes some things that make a modern audience wince. 

Shaw puts on a compelling performance, the Killing Eve star proves she is as comfortable delivering Shakespeare as she is contemporary writing

Undoubtedly, Shaw puts on a compelling performance, the Killing Eve star proves she is as comfortable delivering Shakespeare as she is contemporary writing. She successfully fashions a Richard who is disturbed and insecure, ambitious yet reliant on social affirmation, capturing the character’s most famous traits. On her own, Shaw is great.

Nevertheless, irrespective of her acting ability, there of course comes a sticking place in this production, and that, unfortunately, is Shaw’s gender.

As Richard feels insecure about his identity, this production feels insecure about Shaw’s gender. Ultimately, the character of Richard still remains male, despite being performed by a female body. Shaw’s Richard is referred to with male pronouns, parades around in a typically masculine way, mirroring characteristics of his companions (all of whom are played by male actors) and adopts a certain misogyny, mocking and belittling his wife for her French background to gain kudos among his male circle. This makes the character unconvincing, uncomfortable among those around him. 

This confuses the production. The identity of Richard is a grey area, for the viewers as well as the actors themselves, which distracts us from the storyline and fails to celebrate Shaw’s femininity. Shaw’s gender means homosocial bonds between Richard and his compatriots appear weak but at the same time neither is a heterosocial relationship effectively explored. In this way, characters’ feel lost when engaging with the King.

The most striking part of the production is Richard’s relationship with Bolingbroke. This provides some strange viewing at times, most notably when they kiss passionately, twice in fact, for reasons quite unclear. Their kisses, in the opening scene, and when Bolingbroke prepares to duel Mowbray, come as surprises to viewers. They feel unmotivated and it is unclear why the director felt them necessary.

It’s difficult not to put it down to a wish to exploit Shaw’s femininity. With a woman in the lead role, why not take advantage of the male gaze and throw in a few kisses? That’s what creates excitement for the viewers, isn’t it? This empty motif really distracts from the plotline, a viewer is left wondering why a romance between Bolingbroke and Richard is at all required, when there should be tension between them.

Suggesting unorthodox romance between characters not usually associated with one another is becoming a bit of a trope in contemporary Shakespeare. Sometimes, it does work, adding complex layers to characters’ identities. For example, and as a nice comparison, in David Tennant’s Richard II, Richard and Aumerle share a tender kiss in a scene when Richard’s deposition becomes inevitable. This works because it comes during a private moment and at a time when the stakes are high. It makes for captivating viewing. Furthermore, the kiss also gives more weight to Aumerle’s attempt to avenge Richard towards the end of the play. He is motivated by a stronger love, not just love for the sovereign, which is very innovative. Essentially, it fits into Shakespeare’s tragic storyline. This doesn’t work in the 1997 TV movie.

Casting women in leading male parts should show that a woman can deliver a role just as convincingly as a man, not just provoke interest and sell tickets

It seems as though Fiona Shaw was cast as Richard just for the sake of it. A form of virtue signalling before the term was popularised. In this film, Richard is the only character who is played by an actor of the opposite gender, meaning ‘there was something very peculiar in the middle of the play’, in the words of Shaw. She justifies this by saying that ‘Richard II was very peculiar in the middle of his world’. Sadly, I have to disagree, for a modern audience this isn’t well communicated. 

Of course, in no way am I suggesting women should not play traditionally male parts. Helen Mirren’s Prospera was brilliant, and Maxine Peake received rave reviews for her Hamlet. Casting women in leading male parts should show that a woman can deliver a role just as convincingly as a man, not just provoke interest and sell tickets. 

Image: Anonymous on Wikimedia Commons

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