Smooth Faced Gentlemen, All Bare and Diane Torr take on masculine theatre roles
It's never been a better time to play with gender roles in theatre. Gareth K Vile talks to a handful of female performers taking on theatre's historically male-dominated roles
This article is from 2015.
The question of gender identity is a hot theme at this year's Fringe. Critics have been chasing each other to list shows that explore transgender experience, often without recognising that each work has a distinctive set of interests that don't overlap. The abrupt discovery by critics of trans activism belies the work that has been done over the years, both in feminist and drag performance, to blur the lines between male and female.
The Smooth Faced Gentlemen continue in this tradition of causing gender trouble. An all female company, they fearlessly adapt Shakespeare to contemporary society – their Othello at Underbelly effortlessly updates the action to the 1950s and reflects on cold war paranoia – and allow women to take on those famous characters.
'The immediate first step is to search for a starting point to approach the script,' says director Yaz Al-Shaater. 'For us, gender is always a theme in our work. But the 'concept' of each show comes from spending weeks analysing the text, and researching the play and its history.' And so, their Titus Andonicus (first performed in 2013 but at the Pleasance this month) takes a middle path between visceral brutality and a more abstract violence, adds Al-Shaater. 'The audience will see the blood and gore replaced with paintbrushes and bright red paint and the play treated with the sense of humour that should be reserved for the darkest acts of humanity.'
Their Othello, meanwhile, does more than provide the powerful image of a black female protagonist. 'Visual, interactive, non-verbal, and physical theatre elements all pervade our work, and we believe applying the ideas and unbridled creativity that comes with that to Shakespeare is the best way to keep it relevant and exciting.' It is this combination of respect and irreverence that has made the Smooth Faced Gentlemen so dynamic – and with the addition of a final element: 'the traditions of farce, slapstick, double-takes and general silliness. The more you can make an audience laugh, the more engaged they are, and the more it'll hurt when you hit them with something serious.'
Of course, Shakespeare used single sex casts himself – albeit with boys playing the women, a trope that he worked for humour. Yet, until the advent of the twentieth century, the iconic roles of theatre were more usually reserved for male characters.
If the Smooth Faced Gentlemen take a classic play and reverse the gender of its characters, a strategy that livens up the personal politics of the Bard, All Bare theatre company have taken a 20th century queer classic and twisted it backwards. Genet's The Maids – here translated by playwright Martin Crimp, himself a radical innovator – is a play about three women (who are usually played by men). Director Jesse Haughton-Shaw was inspired by this combination. 'Crimp’s translation melts biting lyricism into Genet’s imagistic energy,' she says. And running with the tag-line 'A bit of role-play never did anyone any harm', The Maids presents a mutually dependent relationship that moves from fantasy into murder.
Apart from Genet's complicated layering of the action – the first scene is a performance of a role-play of the maids' obsession with their mistress, Haughton-Shaw is fascinated by the script's themes and the way it examines power within relationships. While she may have removed Genet's most obvious role-reversal, she is aiming towards the heart of the play's difficult connections of repressed desire and submissive eroticism.
The Smooth Faced Gentlemen and All Bare are more sophisticated than the critics in that they toy with gender issues but connect them to wider issues. Diane Torr, meanwhile, has been messing around with preconceptions for decades. Once part of the legendary New York art scene and a member of Disband, a group of artists who were more punk than mere rock'n'roll could ever be, she returns to the Fringe with Donald Does Dusty.
'Donald... began after the funeral of my brother in January 1992. My idea was to make a performance that was an homage to him and to Dusty Springfield,' she says. 'Additionally, [I wanted] to create a more intimate way to deal with the death of loved ones.' Torr's popular Man for A Day workshops – and her performances in a variety of personae – have made her an iconic figure who has been subverting masculine stereotypes with a fierce wit. The finale of Donald Does Dusty sees her act as her brother performing Dusty Springfield, after a subtle journey through her past and a look at her brother's influence on her personality and ambition.
The connection between these three shows is more than just that they are all centred on women. They are part of a healthy tradition of theatre that rejects the mundane and expected roles and, with a sense of fun, re-invents the relationship between performance and identity. If all the world is a stage, here is encouragement to stop accepting the expected, and imagine a fluid world of freedom and play.
Donald Does Dusty, Summerhall, 560 1581, until 31 Aug (not 25), 7.35pm, £12 (£8).
The Maids, theSpace @ Surgeon's Hall, until 22 Aug, 10.10am, £8 (£5).
Othello: An All-Female Production, Underbelly Potterow, 0844 545 8252, until 31 Aug (not 20), 12.20pm, £10.50–£11.50 (£8–£9).
Titus Andronicus: An All-Female Production, Pleasance Dome, 556 6550, until 31 Aug (not 20), 5pm, £9.50–£11.50 (£7–£9).