Tom Sutcliffe is grateful he is an opera critic


While working for the Guardian and before getting on General Synod, I voted for Margaret Thatcher three times as Conservative leader. I mention my liking for Maggie (who was not very likeable) because with another woman PM now, and a woman Bishop of London, and Newsnight given over more to women than men—and none the worse for it—women’s time seems finally to have come. Shakespeare’s Globe theatre on the south bank of the Thames has, since last April, been committed to performing those masterpieces with 50/50 actors and actresses performing the roles regardless of whether the parts are in fact male or female, and casting there is also gender, race and disability blind. Its artistic director is now Michelle Terry, who has played Henry V among her roles as an actress. No doubt something can be gained from seeing a woman in a male role, but can male characters be taken by actresses and vice versa without affecting the value of what the playwright perceived and wanted?

Shakespeare knew exactly what he was doing when he created his women, which has been demonstrated across the world in many languages over and over again. Lady Macbeth’s determination combined with her devastating sensitivity to what she had engineered is a fascinating account of female psychology. It does matter what sex you are. The idea that as humans we can choose our gender, with a little chemical help and a nip and a tuck, is as misleading as the idea (equally bizarre) that our own normative orientation in our sexual activity is inborn rather than chosen. Modern morality with all its pleading rests on the dubious assumption that people cannot help what they like to do sexually: bisexuality, probably more normal than expected, somehow does not fit, implying the element of choice.

Thank God I am mainly an opera critic. Opera simply does not have the possibility of gender-swapping in roles undertaken because the composer has allocated a specific voice to a part and the music is much more sacrosanct than mere words, even when penned by a genius like Shakespeare. Yet there is some difficulty with colour blind casting—indeed, considering I slept outside Chichester Festival Theatre in 1962 to get a ticket for Olivier’s Othello performed by him with a somewhat dubious West Indian lilt studied in Birmingham, it strikes me as ridiculous that great white tenors with heavy voices are no longer permitted to play the role with dark make-up on. The whole point of Shakespeare’s story is that Othello is an alien with exactly the same feelings and capacity for error as a character with a white skin would have. Shakespeare’s history plays were meant for a London audience, and of course colour blind casting is a way of doing them which is considerably more justifiable that having women play leading roles as a different sex. But it does and will jar.

Now London has seen Glenda Jackson as King Lear, and Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company (about a bachelor some of whose friends want him to be married) has been converted by Sondheim and its woman director Marianne Elliott so that its central male character Robert has become Bobbie (played by Rosalie Craig). It seems to me switching genders really alters the verisimilitude of the talk and of the nature of particular roles in specific situations. The subtlety of relationships between the genders is at the heart of Shakespeare’s wisdom. The pressure on maiden aunts to marry in the old days reflected their difficulty in finding the right man. Men like Eugene Onegin who couldn’t or didn’t marry were in a different boat altogether. To be a male wallflower was unnoticed.

Company had an autobiographical feel to it when I saw it in 1972. Sondheim was unmarried, and Larry Kert, who took over the role of Robert and won prizes for it, was openly gay. So not getting married, a fairly usual topic in musicals as in opera, was interesting. We all know what ‘He never married’ means in Daily Telegraph obituaries… The most memorable performance back in 1972 was Elaine Stritch singing ‘Here’s to the ladies who lunch…’ in a voice suffused with cigarette smoke—Stritch really was a charismatic performer, but so were Julia Mackenzie and Donna McKechnie in the London cast.

For those who never saw it as it was meant to be, Sondheim’s Company recently revived (in a version made with Sondheim’s cooperation and adapted to be all about a woman called Bobbie) worked and the show was quite a sell-out at the Gielgud Theatre. A vicar friend liked Company in its new guise. But that success reflects Sondheim’s early maturity and the many good numbers the piece has. When I saw it the performance was full of energy, but it was just a gimmick. And I think it said nothing to the point about the radical difference in their nature and in their attitudes and dreams between women and men. Bobbie was just a woman who did not want to have children or marry, it seemed—quite content being herself, and not a secret lesbian. And the whole experience of this Company was palid—a lot of choreographed movement to go with the music rather than (as in 1972) almost naturalistic scenes and dialogues that added up as sort of real.