Tom Sutcliffe on sex and gender

All actresses are of course also actors. But only some actors (namely women) are actresses. Readers may not have noticed that obituaries of actresses in The Guardian have for some time scrupulously avoided using the word ‘actress’, even though the word dates back to the 17th century. The Daily Telegraph still uses the full verbal range, and the Oscars do not yet include awards for ‘women actors’. Female forms are part of the English language, though the Church does not admit to priestesses – indeed the word itself is almost a clinching argument.

It is sad that what makes a woman has become so controversial. Gender issues are still rising up the agenda. Germaine Greer has offended male-to-female ‘trans’ people by stating that however much they submit to the knife and take medication they will still not quite be women. But Southwark Playhouse – keeping up with the Globe’s new management – is offering Cyrano de Bergerac with Kathryn Hunter in the lead role. Ms Hunter is a wonderful actress whose work I have been totally gripped by. But I am not sure I can face an all-female production of Rostand’s enjoyable affecting play, any more than I could tolerate all-female Macbeths.

In my youth I played Titania, Lady Macduff, and Hermione in all-male school productions. I share with my wife the fact that we both played Malvolio (she was in Australia at the time and our stars had not crossed). Boys when young are very capable of performing female roles. As Hermione I looked rather like my mother’s mother at her wedding in 1909. I have not seen photos of Meredith as Malvolio, but she went to an all-girls school (called Cheltenham in the Sydney suburb of Epping, which was a state school and nothing to do with the Ladies’ College where my mum and grandmother had been).

Cyrano was famous for having a huge ugly conk in the middle of his face, and a false nose is a useful tool for an actor. But can we treat a woman’s less than perfect physiognomy the way we do a man’s? Men do not, as a rule, compete for handsomeness. But men transitioning into being women do often seem like stunning models – if that is your sort of thing (I’m not talking about ‘drag’ here). It is all very puzzling. In the theatre the issue is truth even more than reality. Good actors enable you both to believe things about the characters and situations they are representing, and to sympathise with them in an ‘as if’ way that is capable of being all the more true and meaningful despite the fact that everything is in a sense ‘made up’. Opera sticks to the almost straight and narrow, because it is based on the singing voice which represents a gold standard in gender areas – though opera history includes the extraordinary baroque phenomenon of the castrato star, a eunuch singing in the most heroic roles.

Escaped Alone, Caryl Churchill’s latest play at the Royal Court Theatre, includes a somewhat Mrs Mop-ish figure (Mrs Jarrett played by Linda Bassett) who spots through a garden gate a trio of friends – women in the autumn of their years, sitting chatting inconsequentially in a summer garden, where she joins them. The play lasts 50 minutes. Interleaved scenes have Mrs Jarrett (in front of the garden fence within a crackling red laser box) deliver slices of Job-like almost Book-of-Revelation ominousness about the end of the world in a still suburbanly matter-of-fact tone: total contrast to the other women’s chat; voice of doom. One gets the point. But so what? Churchill likes scribbling in the sky. A popular old song joined in by all four women was greeted as applause-winning relief. Familiar land at last. Thank God.

In Stuttgart watching Richard Strauss’s amazing Salome (with Oscar Wilde’s provocative French text) in an updated-to-now production by Russian film-director Kirill Serebrennikov, I started out doubtful. Narraboth swivelled round on his computer chair away from a desk and a huge screen to deliver his opening ‘How beautiful Princess Salome looks tonight’, and he was middle-aged (usually they are young and tragic in this role). Not another rerun of clichés with an Armani-suited security corps, I thought. But you never can tell. Stuttgart’s production turned out to be the most gripping I have ever seen – with some very unusual touches. This is the Bible: John the Baptist in prison, and then his head on a silver salver. Before the music started I noticed that the cast included Jochanaans Stimme as well as Jochanaans Körper, with Iain Paterson (brilliant Scottish bass-baritone familiar from English National Opera over the last 20 years, where he is leading the battle of survival) as the prophet’s voice, and Yasin El Harrouk as the body. I wondered if we were going to see Mr Paterson at all, and how it would all work.

Serebrennikov’s set was a lofty hall space with big couches in front of the screen at the back and on the left a kind of reinforced glass partition above which sat a room with a large double bed in it. In the middle of the stage there seemed to be a below-stage enclosure of some sort: a normal space for this shortish one-act opera. But a production is less how it looks than what it means, and how the performers in their roles create a sense of the life (and death) there. The page who is a friend of Narraboth was a beautiful mezzo in an Armani trouser suit. Strauss liked women in trouser roles. Everything was falling into place.

The court of Herod updated to today was shown as if he and Herodias were oligarchs with no scruples – except that he was interested in ideas, hence the five Jews as dinner guests all in smart clothes but not rivalling the fabulous tailored suit that Matthias Klink’s brilliantly acted and sung Herod was wearing. What a tailor! But Claudia Mahnke’s equally superb and powerfully performed Herodias was easily able to carry the extraordinary couture dresses into which she changed as the opera wore on; and of course we clearly saw why Jochanaan preached against her morals, since she seemed to need two muscled toyboys for quick satisfaction upstairs in the bedroom (the curtain did get pulled) on more than one occasion.

Serebrennikov made everything seem completely normal. The oligarchs, of course, needed protecting as much as their money. What was not normal but crucial was the theatrical device of double-casting the prophet Jochanaan. Iain Paterson was seen both in the flesh and as a hologram singing his preaching to us: maybe now, maybe in the past as a recording, and also coming on stage as himself – but not himself the way that Yasin El Harrouk as his body – his physical presence as a middle-eastern religious-obsessed terrorist today – presented the character. The torture to which the prophet was subjected was not so far from Abu Ghraib.

The title role was also doubled with an imaginary Salome in Herod’s mind, more capable of dancing and of being an object of lust than the unwaveringly impressive Simone Schneider in the title role in Stuttgart – sublimely well focussed, as thrilling almost to hear as the great Birgit Nilsson on Decca’s famous early LP recording in the late 1950s conducted by Solti.

When opera in the flesh gets everything right the total is far greater than the sum of its parts, and one can only say (or write) “Chapeau!” A masterpiece fulfilled. ND