Friday, May 10, 2013

Alan Cummings as Lady Macbeth and Female Hamlets – role reversal in Shakespeare

Alan Cummings is currently playing Lady Macbeth on Broadway – actually he is playing all the characters. Cummings’ plays a lone patient housed in a clinical room deep within a dark psychiatric unit. He relives the Macbeth story playing each character himself as a closed circuit television camera watches.

Wild, right?


However, the gender reversal part (a man as Lady Macbeth) in Shakespeare is nothing new. Of course in Shakespeare’s time female roles (his and others) were never played by women but by boys. As time went on, though, women on stage became acceptable and female roles were actually played by females. Then the gender reversal took on a new twist. Women playing the male roles.

Hamlet is considered one of the great roles, not just in Shakespeare but in all drama. So it is not surprising that women as well as men would want to play the Prince. And they have and not just in the modern era.

Sarah Siddons, the great British (she was actually born in Wales) actress of the 18th Century played all the great Shakespearean women – she was particularly noted for her Lady Macbeths – but also played Hamlet 200 years ago. To my knowledge she is the first woman to do so in a public performance. (Unless you are a student of theatre history, you may not be familiar with Siddons, but if you are a film buff, you will be. The opening scene of the wonderful All About Eve, is the presentation to Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington of the Sarah Siddons Award.)

Sarah Bernhardt also played Hamlet in 1899 London. There have been many others up to our own time including a tremendous performance by Judith Anderson on a national tour and at Carnegie Hall in 1970.

These performances involved the women playing Hamlet as a man. However there are instances in which the character is actually played as if a woman. Scholars have long commented on the male/female nature of Hamlet.

Of course, Shakespeare also wrote female characters that spent most of their time on stage pretending to be boys: As You Like It
and Twelfth Night.

There is a lot of discussion in the theatre today regarding color-blind and gender-blind casting. And indeed we have seen productions of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple with the male roles played by women, as women. There was also a tremendous production of Twelve Angry Women, the all-female version of the classic courtroom drama.

So far, most of the proponents of gender-blind casting have advocated for women being able to play men’s roles. But interestingly, there is a bit of a flap now being raised about some all-male casts of Shakespearean plays. Apparently in some circles the notion of gender-blind casting only goes one way.

But that is a subject for another day.

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