From Medea to Posh: We spoke to the thaetre directors whose all-female productions have caused a stir
“You can trace the all-male norm right back to ancient Greece and then into Shakespeare’s time,” the theatre director George Mann tells me. “When women were forbidden to be on the stage. The power of subverting that norm is still resonating – shocking, but all the more reason to do it.” Mann’s Medea is the latest bold production taking the British theatre scene by storm by utilising an all-female cast at Bristol Old Vic. But despite the growing trend, those wishing to play around with gender roles have not been congratulated for innovation by all.
Director Phyllida Lloyd spoke of some audience members being “quite condescending” and “outraged at the audacity” of the “unashamed feminist mission” of her all-female Julius Caesar, the first of her landscape-altering Shakespeare trilogy at Donmar King’s Cross, which also includes Henry IV and The Tempest. And further experiments with gender-fluid Shakespearean castings have provoked less than favourable reactions from reputable playwrights and critics, with Ronald Harwood quoted as calling castings such as Glenda Jackson as King Lear an “insult to the playwright”; and Dominic Cavendish suggesting Tamsin Greig’s stint as Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the National Theatre was “contributing to the death of the male lead”.
So what is the drive behind this new wave of all-female and gender-fluid casting? And what are directors such as Mann aiming to achieve by flying in the face of convention?
Mann sees the choice of a female-driven Medea as very much a product of the current political climate, “when powerful politicians are marginalising female voices, powerful women are undermined by elements of the press and feminism is forced to revisit old battles”. Interweaving Euripides’ Greek tragedy with a contemporary tale of female injustice written by Nigerian-born Chino Odimba, the play aims to put two women’s fight for justice and voice – though thousands of years apart – into stark parallel.