|This isn't Mark Rylance as Richard Crookback|
This week, a pair of Shakespeare productions start performances in repertory on Broadway. Mark Rylance leads the company, playing Richard Crookback in Richard III and Olivia in Twelfe Night (sic—the Folio spelling!). He's not the only one playing a female role, either; the entire company is male. The absence of women is justified by a concept called “original practices”, which Rylance pioneered as the Artistic Director at the Globe in London. The retro impulse drove the company to build its theater according to Elizabethan construction (where allowed by modern fire-codes) and hand-stitch costumes together out of period textiles! It's an incredible place to see Shakespeare's work, especially when Rylance was onstage, and teaches the lover of Shakespeare, or of theater generally, a great deal about his dramaturgy, which is still so central to modern theater.
But any claims that “original practices” makes to artistic fidelity are obviated by 350 years of tradition and cultural drift. We’re so far removed from what Shakespeare meant by “male” that an “all-male” cast doesn’t possess any intrinsic verisimilitude. Anyway, contemporary troupes like this Broadway company tend to ignore the fact that, in Elizabethan theater, the female roles weren’t played by men, they were filled by young adolescents. It wasn’t exactly drag in the modern sense either, but it was a theatrical artifice that required specialized training.
I don’t mean to say that all-male cast can’t bring a new perspective to one of the plays. About a decade ago, I saw an all-male Taming of the Shrew staged at BAM by Edward Hall’s Propeller company. Casting a man as Kate allowed, in a nearly literal sense, the director to pull no punches. The relationship between Petruchio and Kate was more knockabout, seemingly less inhibited. Testosterone gave the production a locker-room quality, where hazing and roughhousing has an undercurrent of primate hierarchy. Perhaps with women in the role, some feminist impulse or latent sense of chivalry had kept most productions from admitting how violent the taming could get, or had subverted it in the name of modernity. Hall’s Taming, however, was violent and dark, reframing Shakespeare's attitudes for a modern audience.
In that case, an all-male cast added something valuable to the show beyond the gimmick. But more often, the concept has a whiff of boys-club exclusivity. Rose Rage, Propeller’s otherwise excellent adaptation of the three parts of Henry VI felt that way; there was no reason to cast a man as Margaret of Anjou (aside from the talent of the performer in a very memorable part). Similarly, Rylance’s original Twelfth Night at the Globe, back in 2002, failed to capitalize on the meta-dramatic kink of men-as-girls. The “original practices” conceit is no less artificial than any revival 400 years after its premiere. The boy who originally played Viola—and probably Rosalind and Portia too—has disappeared along with his name and his acting tradition.
But Twelfth Night does bring up one crucial facet of Elizabethan dramaturgy: those cross-dressing heroines. Shakespeare plays deliberately with irony when he has a boy play a girl disguised as a boy (especially in As You Like It, where actor/Rosalind/Ganymede roleplays as Rosalind, adding another level of cross-gender masquerade). Most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries did little with the device; Ben Jonson’s Epicene, for example, treats it with sniggering sexism. But Shakespeare elevated his female roles by lending them the pubescent actor’s incipient masculinity. His heroines, both comic and tragic, possess an autonomy that lays just below the surface even when they’re in gowns. The all-male cast is intrinsically part of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, but it’s deep in the bedrock, unseen. A modern all-male production can excavate the playwright’s rich approach to gender onstage, but it has to work carefully and imaginatively.