R3: Casting Richard As A Woman

In September I was fortunate enough to see this season's production of Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It was a wonderful experience, and the conclusion of a full year's obsession for me. I have been enthusiastically theorizing and thinking about the play since the announcement last year that it would be put on. This installment of R3 is in part a review and in part a contemplation on gender in Richard III.

Richard is a much-beloved character among actors. He is a multi-layered role (or, as Miles Potter says, all layers and nothing else) open to an incredible amount of interpretation and experimentation. He transcends his own historical context, and actor merely portraying his life, not living it. This quality of duplicity and falseness even to his own character makes him a blank slate, ideal for any actor.

It was only a matter of time, then, that female Richards would transcend experimental theatre and go into the mainstream. Such cross-casting was done with great effect by the British actress Kathryn Hunter, also famous for her portrayals of King Lear and Dr Sebastian Barry. But for actresses whose territory isn't usually within the realm of gender-bending, Richard seems a goal insubstantial.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to attend a Q+A session with Seana McKenna and Ben Carlson following last season's superb production of A Winter's Tale. The subject quickly came to Ms McKenna's casting as Richard III, which had just been announced. At this point, the casting seemed like a highly lucrative gimmick. It was clear, even at this point, that she and the director Miles Potter had already put a great deal of thought into the legitimacy of casting a woman as Richard, beyond the concept of a starring vehicle for a profoundly gifted actor.

Ms McKenna first stated that one of Richard III's biggest character traits is disability and how people with physical disabilities tend to be stereotyped as asexual. Richard flies in the face of this stereotype, often talking about sex and women, often to the revulsion of other characters. If Richard is a woman, this concept is further heightened, given the taboo status homosexuality has in the historical context of the play. This taboo ironically further increases the audience's perception of Richard as a person with gender.

Ms McKenna also said that 'evil has no gender', which I could easily have seen as the tagline for this production of Richard III. That said, I felt at the time, and still feel, that this was a justification rather than a clarification of the concept. It also distills some of the ideas that would be explored and explicated later on.

Miles Potter states again and again that Richard is a multi-layered character, and in fact that he is all layers and nothing else. His reasoning is that a female Richard is 'sharing one more secret with the audience'; that of her gender.

Mr Potter creates an evocative concept here. Suddenly what was a gimmick of casting a woman as Richard is subverted; he has cast Richard as a woman.

In performance, these ideas were realized in a theatrical fashion rather than a scholarly one. There were lines that would have little irony were Richard a man that were simply laden with it with Ms McKenna starring. For instance, this little gem from Act 3, Scene 7:

Buckingham:    If you refuse it,--as, in love and zeal/ Loath to depose the child/ Your brother's son/ As well we know your tenderness of heart/ And gentle, kind, effeminate remorse, 
That last line got laughs. It never does, even though it's blatant anaphrasis to the character no matter who's playing him.

The designers of this production had opted for a completely historical setting, which oddly enough is an increasingly rare and bold choice for Shakespeare's histories nowadays. Of note were the period costumes and hair, which, as Miles Potter pointed out in the video interview featured last week, are already gender-muted. All of the men in the time of Richard III wore their hair long, and wore tunics not much shorter than ladies' dresses. In this respect, it is not the clothing that makes the man, but his actions.

But how manly are Richard's actions? How human is Richard himself? He is often described as a creature or a beast by those around him (one thinks of the 'bottled spider' which figured so greatly in Antony Sher's interpretation of Richard). Though he has a very developed sense of honour, or appears to within the innermost frame of the play. The rules of morality and chivalry do not apply to he who is an usurping childkiller. Not beholden to the unwritten laws that make one human and humane, Richard becomes a creature, a lump of filth without any signifiers that would endear the audience to him. Given this aspect of the character, it is acceptable to conclude that Richard can be played by either a man or a woman, because the horrific nature of his actions transcends any human modifier, least of all gender.

Acceptable, perhaps, but also naive; an audience, no matter how enlightened it may be concerning nontraditional casting, will notice if Richard is a woman or not. The logical thought that comes after is, if the audience notices Richard's gender, why the people sharing Richard's stage do not.

And this opens a whole new can of worms that I'm afraid I'll have to discuss next week lest I go mad.

Stay tuned!

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