On classic texts and single gender casts

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. 

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