Playing parts

I understand how most discrimination happens, it’s a simple distrust growing to fear of those that aren’t like us, and nearly all of us acknowledge that it’s wrong. But there’s a discrimination that makes no sense at all from any level. One of the most egregious is discrimination by half of us against the other half, regardless of race, religion or nationality; a discrimination against a sort like us in every respect but one, and a sort that we can't live without.

I’m bewildered by it. Sexual discrimination simply makes no sense, and although we have committed this appalling social crime throughout all our human history, this is not about the past, it’s the present and the fact is that there is still a battle raging to put it right. Why there should be a battle at all is what is bewildering me.
This week the Globe, starting its first season with its new female artistic director, Michelle Terry, has opened a new play about the Iceni war lord Boudicca with a plea from its female star for more plays with “strong, female” leads. Terry has vowed to have 50-50 female-male casts and have gender-blind casting, which means some of the male roles in Boudicca are played by women.
Shakespeare has plenty of plays with strong women in them, but when he wrote them they had to be played by men for reasons which have seemed incomprehensible, but which we are beginning to fathom the practical possibilities of now that we are getting used to seeing – and appreciating – female Hamlets and Lears. The acting is what we see, not the gender, and when that works the narrative is uninterrupted by irrelevant impositions of sex. Panto and opera have traditionally had females playing males, but dressed and made up in such a way as to not only make the actors’ true gender clear but to accentuate it, outwith the story; it’s almost de rigeur now for pantomime dames to sport beards. And the best Nurse in Romeo and Juliet that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few) was in the Globe’s 2004 production being played by a professional drag queen, Bette Bourne, with the infinite skill of a fine actor probably more used than most of his peers to playing out of his skin.
Greg Doran, the RSC’s artistic director, is going to match Terry, at least in part, by directing a 50-50 cast in Troylus and Cressida for a coming season, something he told journalists on Tuesday they would not believe was possible. At that press conference Doran also revealed that for the first time in its history the RSC will field an all female directing line-up in its 2018 season, a season that will highlight a play by the fine 17th century female playwright Mary Pix, who has almost never been produced in recent times.
We have been guilty of prejudice on both sides of the gender divide – directors of TV ads for household products are almost legally obliged to portray men as childish, selfish, incompetents. Who decreed that only women have the common sense to be good at keeping house?
It is a disgrace that we have to make a point of acknowledging that half of us are not less gifted than the other half because of our sex. We could start by banning the word “actress” for ever.


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