Can you imagine Hamlet being a woman? Or a female James Bond for that matter? It may not come to that, but the current trend of swapping originally male characters with females and vice versa is apparent. It happens in theatre and in film. While its novelty is undoubtedly striking, it may turn out to be just a fad responding to the current movement towards women and minorities’ empowerment.
I’ve recently seen two brilliantly staged plays in which the characters’ genders were swapped. The first one is the widely known Twelfth Night by Shakespeare, and the second is Present Laughter by Noel Coward.
If you’ve seen Twelfth Night, you are sure to remember Malvolio, a stuck-up steward who is fooled into believing that the lady of the house is in love with him. The servants take the mickey out of him by tricking him into wearing ridiculous clothes and by feeding his inflated ego with fantasies. The comical teeters on the brink of tragic, especially in the eyes of more sensitive modern spectators, as opposed to their Elizabethan contemporaries. The new production of the National Theatre has taken a new look at the character of Malvolio and has turned him into Malvolia. Fabulously performed by Tamsin Greig, the part has made the play shine in a new light, raising the comical to its new heights. A puritan snob, she bursts into a firework of emotion when she believes she is loved. The play director seems to have been very careful not to emphasize the queerness of her desire. The play has nothing to “offend” those who are not in step with the changing views on sexuality. It is all about laughing at the fools and identity mistakes.
Despite all that, there is something off. For me, it’s the absolute improbability of those events happening in real life. Yes, I know that theatre is anything but real life. But it should and often does reflect our world at its best and worst. The atmosphere of the play remained too Shakespearian for any gay love to be believable.
The latest production of a play by a twentieth-century playwright, Noel Coward, is another very peculiar case study. Present Laughter is a hit of TheatreHD project that has already been running for half a year in cinemas and it is bound to set a record. Its star, Andrew Scott, has won the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for his performance. Personally, this play stirred up my whirlwind infatuation with the theatre. And yet, it has a big gender swap issue that I’d like to discuss.
The plot revolves around an extremely successful theatre actor, Garry Essendine, who is adored by his friends, family and the public. Indeed, there are four people in the play who fiercely compete for his love: a young sentimental woman, Daphne, his adulterous best friend’s wife, his wise ex-wife, Liz, and a young man with suppressed homosexual desires, Roland. Amazingly, each of them offers Garry a unique kind of love – fleeting and romantic, passionate and playful, caring and familial, and same-sex love. In my view, it makes a pretty neat selection.