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Glenda Jackson in King Lear at The Old Vic. Photos by Manuel Harlan

Glenda Jackson in King Lear at The Old Vic. Photos by Manuel Harlan

2016: a gender-blind year

Published 30 December 2016

Guest post by Niall Palmer

2016 has been a year of transformation for London Theatre. Both the Victoria Palace and the Royal Opera House are undergoing face-lifts, and we’ve also had exciting announcements of new projects such as Lord Lloyd Webber’s The Other Palace. The worlds of theatre and entertainment have also changed forever with the losses of writers like Victoria Wood and Caroline Ahern, acting royalty Alan Rickman, and figures who made change into an art-form; David Bowie, Pete Burns and Prince. Something else which united the latter three artists was their willingness to challenge gender stereotypes and assume the guise of the opposite sex or, at the very least, experiment with something in-between the polarities of male and female.

Gender-bending in the world of the arts is of course nothing new – from Italian castrati to the traditions of Chinese Opera and Japanese Kabuki. Just think of Chicago’s Mary Sunshine and Frank’n’furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In fact, as far back as Ancient Greece, evidence exists of males taking on female roles – and vice versa – on stage. In Jacobean London, where convention forbade women from appearing on stage, female roles had to be taken by men in the company. These roles were often played straight but could also be used to great comedic effect. To complicate matters, men playing women would then occasionally be required to play “a-woman-playing-a-man” – for example in The Merchant Of Venice where Portia and her maid don male attire in order to advocate on behalf of the Merchant in court.

Many actors seem to relish the challenges and opportunities that gender-swapping brings: Think Dame Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria, Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs or Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar nominated role in The Danish Girl. So, who were the West End’s gender-bending stars of 2016?

Glenda Jackson – King Lear in King Lear

Glenda Jackson in King Lear at The Old Vic. Photos by Manuel Harlan

Without doubt, the most hotly-anticipated return of 2016 was former MP and double Oscar winner Glenda Jackson as King Lear. Critics described her performance as Shakespeare’s iconic male tragedian as “A Tour de Force” (Mark Shenton – The Stage). For The Times, Ann Treneman said “The cast is stellar and the brightest [star] of all is Glenda Jackson”.

Harriet Walter – Brutus/Henry IV/Prospero in The Donmar Trilogy

Harriet Walter (Brutus) in Julius Caesar (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

The Donmar Trilogy reunited Harriet Walter with director Phyllida Lloyd. Lloyd’s formidable directorial career takes in the Bristol Old Vic, Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester and Royal Shakespeare Company. She directed Mamma Mia! both on stage and as a big screen adaptation which became the highest grossing film ever at the UK box office. Her all-female Donmar Trilogy starred Harriet Walter as Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero in Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest respectively, and reached its zenith this year with all three plays performed in rep by an entirely female cast, including ex-offenders.

Angelo Smimmo – The Grandmother in The Little Match Girl

Angelo Smimmo in The Little Match Girl

Enjoying its third Christmas residency in Sadler’s Wells’ Lilian Baylis Studio, Arthur Pita’s charming adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the little girl who freezes to death features various cross-dressing characters, but perhaps the most haunting is that of the Little Match Girl’s grandmother, sung quite extraordinarily by Italian counter-tenor Angelo Smimmo.

Craige Els – Miss Trunchbull in Matilda The Musical

Craige Els in Matilda The Musical

Anyone who doesn’t immediately cower behind their seat when ex-Olympic shot-putter Agatha Trunchbull appears on stage in Matilda The Musical probably isn’t human. With some distinctly male attributes, Miss Trunchbull is a woman not to be messed with. Agatha is currently played by Craige Els. Originally from Liverpool, Craige has appeared on TV in Call The Midwife and Ripper Street, and in the West End in The Rat Pack, Never Forget, and Spamalot.

Paul O’Grady – The Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella

Paul O’Grady (Baroness Hardup) in Cinderella. Photographs by Paul Coltas & Steve Williams

British theatre has a long-standing love affair with drag, and that’s never more evident than in pantomime where dames generally rule the roost. Returning this season to his comedy roots is Paul O’Grady as the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at the London Palladium. Paul’s alter-ego was Lily Savage, whose acid-tongue and filthy sense of humour propelled Lily from the UK’s cabaret circuit to the hostess of prime-time TV gameshow, Blankety Blank.

Anna Francolini – Captain Hook in Peter Pan

Captain Hook (Anna Francolini) and pirates in Peter Pan (Photo Steve Tanner)

Sally Cookson brings her wondrously inventive Peter Pan to the NT after a sell-out run at Bristol Old Vic. Exploring the possibilities and pain of growing up, it’s a riot of magic, mischief, music and make-believe. Reversing traditional gender roles, Saikat Ahamed plays Tinkerbell and Anna Francolini stars as a vengeful Captain Hook.

Other notable gender swaps of the past include Danny La Rue as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly (1982), Michael Ball’s Edna Turnblad in Hairspray (2007) and David Suchet as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell (2015). But it’s not all one-way traffic, with outstanding female performances from Janet McTeer as Petruchio (2003) and more recently Maxine Peake’s Hamlet (2014). There’s more to come in 2017 with Tamsin Greig as a transformed Malvolia in the NT’s Twelfth Night. So next time you’re at a West End show, keep a close eye out – you might be surprised by just who’s playing who!

By Niall Palmer


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