On classic texts and single gender casts

by Jane

Among several themes circling around Australian theatre at the moment, two that are particularly prominent and I’ve written about recently, are the adaptation of classical texts, and works exploring gender theory and sexuality. These works exist on mainstages with thousand seat theatres and in independently funded productions in backyard sheds. There is a dialogue existing between these works: the voices of independent companies rising to and becoming embedded with major funded organisations, and then new, younger independent theatre makers seeing this conversation and again playing with it themselves: be that with themes of gender, classics or, increasingly, both.

In the last eight months I’ve made particular note of three theatrical works from independent companies that combine both of these themes using single gendered casts. From Sydney’s US-A-UMThe Lord of the Flies; from Adelaide’s Foul PlayMacbeth; and from Melbourne’s 5Pound TheatreUbu Roi. These three companies place different emphasis on their solo-gendered casts with these old and familiar texts, and each come out with a drastically different message on gender with varying levels of success.

The work that has laid most heavily on my mind, and became the catalyst for writing about these three works is this unsuccessful Macbeth, under the direction of Yasmin Gurreeboo. Staged in warehouse space in the Adelaide suburb of Bowden, Gurreeboo asks her audience to sit through her production twice: once with an all female cast, and then repeated with an all male cast. The text, cut down to eighty minutes with a seemingly endless list of dramaturgs credited in the program, starts with ‘is this a dagger which I see before me, the dagger towards my hand?’, and is a confused edit playing with time and space that places Macbeth in a prison, seemingly recounting the events which lead him there with cast members doubling between characters in the prison and characters in the original story, with no obvious logic to when they are playing each.

Foul Play's Macbeth. Photo by Manda Webber.

Foul Play’s Macbeth. Photo by Manda Webber.

Foul Play’s goal with this production, confusion in text aside, was to have the audience question how they perceive the story of Macbeth and the violence which is inherent in Shakespeare’s story when they view these actions performed by a man against performed by a woman. “I want to offer an audience the opportunity to be in a position to face their own prejudices head on by seeing the same roles, in the same production played out by a males and females,” Gurreeboo writes in her director’s statement. Unfortunately, Gurreeboo and her cast fail to escape the ideas and constructs of gender as written into the original characters, and so these prejudices can never be accessed by her audience. 

In both plays, when Macduff turns to Lady Macbeth and says:

 O gentle lady,
‘Tis not for you to hear what I can speak:
The repetition, in a woman’s ear,
Would murder as it fell.

he is a man saying these words to a woman – a lone woman in a room of men – and in both plays this woman reacts by fainting to the ground: the delicate sensibilities of such a womanly creature offended. Time and time again, the “men” are presented to us as traditionally masculine and the “women” as traditionally feminine: gender as coded through body language and vocal octaves. We never have a chance to react to each cast differently, because both casts are the same. 

Indeed, the play feels strikingly absent of a commentary on gender or on gender theory. Truly, the gender of the cast in each production seems to have been ignored. As Fleur Kilpatrick interpreted in her response, the play “became strangely sexless. Rather than making a male and a female version, they made two identically gender-neutral versions.”

To give the most simplistic of examples, the production was set in a prison and I can tell you now that the easiest way to smuggle anything in or out of that prison would be to stow it beside your cock, between your breasts or up your vagina. These parts of the actors’ bodies were invisible to their guards in every search. A strange censorship seems to have descended over the stage: mouths spoke atop pixelated torsos. Pronouns were thrown about without seeming to land on anyone. Did this challenge me to reconsider authority under the lens of gender? Not really. It all but removed gender from a play once full of it.

The role of gender in the original Macbeth is incredibly interesting to note: without the women, there is no story. Without the witches, Macbeth has no vision of a world where he is king. Without the pressure and callousness of Lady Macbeth, would he pursue the crown in the way he does?

As Kilpatrick notes, no boobs are groped nor cock grabbed while Macbeth is patted down for his body search (for it is his body search): here, even these obvious marked signifiers are ignored. While to the audience one actor playing Macbeth presents as physically male and the other female, to the guards, it seems, they exist completely separate from gender, and completely separate from sexuality. This is only highlighted by playing with two solo-gendered casts.

I disagree slightly with Kilpatrick’s reading that “pronouns were thrown about without seeming to land on anyone”: as I have already stated, I felt like the cast continued to read into Shakespeare’s pronouns, and it was this that flattened any reading of gender across the two plays. Too often, the men performed women by lifting their voice an octave; the women performed men by dropping theirs.

One of the more interesting readings of gender that I witnessed in the theatre last year was US-A-UM’s production of The Lord of the Flies with Malthouse Theatre’s Helium. Director Kip Williams cast all women in this traditional male story, maintaining male character names and pronouns but through costuming and characterisation undeniably showing us the story as it would pertain to schoolgirls instead of boys.

His characters, dressed in skirts and blouses, take a gendered approach to the war of the island: war paint is applied with streaks of red lipstick; amour is built from stockings with slits cut in the crouch and feet, slipped over the women’s heads and stuffed with clothing for protection. And still, this production works through the same mechanisms as in William Golding’s book published 60 years previous, using the text of Nigel Williams’ 1995 theatrical adaptation.

US-A-UM's Lord of the Flies. Photo by Sarah Walker.

US-A-UM’s Lord of the Flies. Photo by Sarah Walker.

We watch as power plays worked the same in an all female setting as it did in a male setting, and through this director Williams asks his audience to question why violence is so often ascribed only to men. There are, at times, moments where these power plays exist in ways we view as gendered: the judging glance, the whispered and clearly exclusionary conversation. But largely, violence is violence is violence and the women give it as much as Golding’s men could ever do.

Rather than becoming a ‘woman’s story’, through this casting and direction Williams makes it a human story. He knows his audience knows that the story works when it was about boys; he needs to show them that it works exactly the same when it is about girls. Here, The Lord of the Flies expands out the possibilities of its commentary on group dynamics, and the names and pronouns that the characters used to refer to each other became just as meaningless as the original text’s gender division.

The production wasn’t entirely successful and in making the work a commentary about gender, Williams brushes over the uncomfortable race politics. This an unfortunate misstep in depiction of the island “savages” threatens to undo some of the politicised message. It is the fact that the production is making a political statement on gender – coupled with the fact that I saw the production the night after Sisters Grimm‘s Sovereign Wife and their heavy commentary on racial politics – that makes the racial relations in the production particularly uncomfortable. But that is an essay for another time. As it stands, at its core, Lord of the Flies offers its audience an exciting deconstruction of gender roles and their place in literature.

In the current Adelaide Fringe, Melbourne company 5Pound Theatre are presenting Ubu Roi: Alfred Jarry’s bizarre 1896 text which pulls inspiration from Macbeth, Richard III and others, creating, well, a fun mess. Staging the work in a literal mud-pit in Gluttony, the text feels to have been chosen largely incidentally: this adaptation to contemporised vernacular mostly consisting of swear words and the production largely an excuse to muck around in mud.

Much like Lord of the Flies and one half of Macbeth, director Jason Cavanagh takes a female cast to present this work, with only interstitial appearances from Cavanagh himself – feeling primarily like the choice one must make when faced with fringe theatre budgets. As you’d expect for a text written of that time, the characters are largely male. Unlike Williams and Lord of the Flies, here Cavanagh makes very little noise in the production that he is using women. The press-release refers to the casting, and, rather confusingly in light of actually seeing the work, the Fringe blurb refers to “making the two protagonists lesbian lovers” but in viewing the production my interpretation was this casting took the work in a direction largely devoid of gender in a way that adds to the production, rather than detracts. 

Costuming does make gendered references: one woman appears in a bra, another in a corset and cod piece. Freya Pragt’s Daddy Ubu wears a sash in a not-so-subtle nod to a penis. It is not, therefore, as easy to ascribe gender to these characters by simply transferring the gender of these actors. The cast of five use much doubling and with Jarry’s joyous mess of a script and Cavanagh’s excitable direction there is really very little which can be, or needs to be, identified in terms of who is playing who. While Gurreeboo’s doubling causes her audience to become lost, Cavanagh allows his audience’s minds to just dance in the revelry of incomprehension: the through line of the piece comes through clear enough, and that is all that is needed.

As the cast cycle through various characters with this doubling, they play with gendered characteristics to a greater and a lesser extent: some characters (mostly male in text) exhibit what we would associate with more masculinised traits, some (mostly female in text) exhibit feminised traits. Other characters, though, exist in a sate of gender neutrality: not quite neither male nor female, but where gender is not a classifying feature. Gendered commentary does come through – Daddy Ubu’s sash is far from the lone penis reference, and at times the work becomes unfortunately over reliant on gendered insults embedded in the squalid text – but, mostly, Cavanagh erases gendered notes through the work, and certainly through the performance. Even when Cavanagh – who, again in fringe style, is the lighting operator for the production – briefly appears on stage, his maleness isn’t a differentiating factor from the rest of the cast. Rather, the differentiating factor is just how clean he is surrounded by actors caked in mud. Jarry’s text stands without a need for gender, just a need for characters.

Lord of the Flies makes deliberate note of playing with women’s bodies and women’s roles and through this makes a commentary on universal truths between men and women. Ubu Roi presents the women’s bodies as given, but gender as a construct to be played with more loosely: Cavanagh’s hypothesis seeming to be we are all simply people with the comedy and tragedy of the text inherent regardless. Macbeth, the one production here which uses men’s and women’s bodies, as much as it tries cannot seem to free itself from ancient gendered roles and gendered constructs, and cannot bring anything new to our reading of the work.

In presenting an all male production of any classical text, it must be acknowledged that this casting was once standard – and men still dominate our stages today, especially when we watch Shakespearian productions. It is, surely, partially this reason that commentaries on the male gender come out in these female productions of Lord of the Flies and Ubu Roi, but are obscured in Gurreeboo’s telling of Macbeth. There is much to be said about masculinity and gendered structures that men are often forced to conform with or be judged by, but because men have been the standard for so long it is hard to make these points by casting alone. In Macbeth Gurreeboo doesn’t heighten or question masculinity: maleness is implicit, and so this production neatly fits into the ancient human assumption that men’s stories are universal. It matters not if we’re seeing the male or female cast; we’re seeing one story.

As I mentioned at the top of this piece, Australian theatre makers’ approach to gender and sexuality is in an exciting place now. In old and new texts, gender is increasingly presented as a more fluid concept. These ideas, too, aren’t limited to Australia. Interviewing Ivo van Hove for the Adelaide Review about his Roman Tragedies coming to the Adelaide Festival, we discussed van Hove casting women in what are historically and traditionally male roles. On this, he told me:

That was for me very important. The most important choice was to make [the new emperor] into a woman. I did it always when there was not a real relationship with a woman involved, and of course Octavius is not married, he’s still a young man in Shakespeare’s play, but here I made him into a woman because I think it would be a shame in if I made a production about politicians today not to have women involved.

There are a lot of women like Angela Merkel, she is the boss of Germany; Hilary Clinton was the second in charge and will go for president [of the United States], I’m sure; of course, Margaret Thatcher to name a conservative politician – because a lot of women are really in charge. Progressive and conservative. So for me [it was] a very important issue. Immediately a decision for me is where possible, without making it feel really strange, [women] play the main roles.

Discussions on gender and sexuality are a bigger part of our world today than they have previously been in my lifetime. Van Hove points out these women leaders in our world, but it is also important to note how much we discuss these ideas as artistic themes. Macbeth, Lord of the Flies and Ubu Roi don’t exist in a vacuum. They, like many other theatre works, are responding to the dialogue around gender and around women’s voices, and about how both of these conversations exist within and outside of theatrical spaces. In a world where so much conversation is happening, where audiences to these works can be quite reasonably expected to have at least a cursory understanding of gender theory, there is a duty on the artists and the art to exist within those conversations.

What would have read from Gurreeboo’s Macbeth had she chosen a single gendered cast, more deeply interrogated the text and her perspective on it, and was able to spend time developing her casts’ performances? I cannot say. Certainly, it feels much of the confidence the creators have in Lord of the Flies and Ubu Roi comes through the exclusion of men: be this to highlight the use of the woman’s voice and body in Lord of the Flies, or through the understated reality of simply using human bodies who happen to be women in Ubu Roi.

Each of the two versions of Macbeth needed a depth of reading, understanding of gender theory, understanding of Shakespearian text, and level of performance that, ultimately, Gurreeboo and her cast were not able to deliver. In a contemporary Australian theatrical context, adaptations, reworkings of canonical texts, and new works commenting on sexuality and gender theory are becoming more ubiquitous. This, excitingly, means that audiences are becoming increasingly educated in these themes, and education of an audience forces the demand for standards increasingly higher. While playing with gender may, in itself, be a statement, this means nothing if its appearance on stage is not artistically and intellectually supported. It is perhaps these reasons why Macbeth has sat with me so long, and has allowed me to have my own deeper interpretations of Lord of the Flies and Ubu Roiwhen watching art with excitement and expectations, those let downs can be all the more painful.

But I think that’s probably enough from me. Did you see these productions and have a different reading than me? Or are there other works that have made you think about these themes? I’d love to know in the comments.

US-A-UM’s Lord of the Flies, by Nigel Williams based on the book by William Golding. Directed by Kip Williams. Tower Theatre, Malthouse. Helium, June/July, 2013.

Foul Play’s Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Yasmin Gurreeboo. Plant 1, Bowden. January 2014.

 5Pound Theatre’s Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry. Directed by Jason Cavanagh. Gluttony. Adelaide Fringe, February 2014.