In 2007 Neil Bartlett directed a production of Twelfth Night at the RSC in which Viola was played by a man, Chris New, and Sir Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian were played by women; Marjorie Yates, Annabel Leventon and Joanne Howarth respectively. The production divided critics and audiences, Michael Billington in The Guardian thought it was ‘odd and arbitrary’ and Charles Spencer in The Telegraph dismissed it as ‘self-indulgent and self-regarding’ while The Stage thought it was ‘fabulous’ and The Independent said it was ‘joyous… fantastically fresh [and] a wonderful evening’.
So what was Bartlett doing and why did he do it? In two words, he was queering Shakespeare. Queer Theory began as a challenge to a cultural hegemony which validates a heterosexual norm and marginalises other sexual identities. From there it widened to challenge the concept of divisive social norms altogether, as Michael Warner said in the introduction to his book, Fear Of A Queer Planet ‘Queer gets a critical edge by defining itself against the normal rather than the heterosexual… We might even say that queer politics opposes society itself.’
Alexander Doty defined queer as ‘a flexible space for the expression of all aspects of non-straight cultural production and reception’. In theatre terms this kind of flexible space can mean embracing marginalised, low status art forms such as drag or burlesque with their exaggerated, parodic sexualised performances or subverting, or queering, established, high status forms, and you don’t get much more established or high status than Shakespeare.
A key concept in queer theory is performativity. The philosopher and sociologist, Judith Butler, said, ‘gender reality is created through sustained social performances… it is real only to the extent that it is performed.’ If gender is performative, i.e. it’s a thing you do, not what you are, then Shakespeare, with his boys who play girls who dress up as boys to seduce men, is a theatrical goldmine.
The academic, Madhavi Menon, said, ‘I think a lot of queer theory derives from Shakespeare’ and Neil Bartlett described Twelfth Night as ‘one of the queerest, most outrageous plays ever written’. In an interview in The Times he said, ‘if a theatre company announced that Shakespeare’s Antony was going to be played by a woman, everyone would want to know why. It was written for a man, they’d say, by one of the greatest playwrights who ever lived. But if Cleopatra is played by a woman, nobody thinks to say, but that role was written for a man, by one of the greatest playwrights who ever lived. Yet those are the facts. So we shouldn’t ask ‘Why cross cast?’; what we should really be asking is ‘Why not?’
With Hayley Carmichael and Eileen Walsh about to play Horatio and Rosencrantz to Michael Sheen’s Hamlet at The Young Vic in October, why not indeed?