James Haddrell takes a look at gender choice in theatre roles


For a long time I have been interested in the significance of the gender choices that playwrights make when writing characters for theatre, and the way in which directors and performers then tackle those roles – choosing to match the written gender with the performer cast on stage, to change character gender definitions and see what impact that has on the piece, or to cast gender blind and allow any performer to take on the role.

Our productions of The Jungle Book and Pinocchio both featured female actors in the lead roles, with Antonia Elson playing Mowgli and Cassandra Hercules playing Pinocchio, but in both cases they were playing a male character.

When we came to produce Bad Nights And Odd Days, a collection of short plays by Caryl Churchill written half a century ago, I secured Churchill’s approval in gender-switching two of the key characters, both written as male and in our production changed to female characters and played by female actors. When it came to it though, the biggest surprise was probably the lack of any issue. In both cases the issues of gender that may have arisen 50 years ago were entirely absent today.

If these changes slipped under the radar, a far higher profile switch is set to take place on a London stage this season, when Cush Jumbo (raised in Lewisham and a former student of the Brit School in Croydon, but now best known as attorney Lucca Quinn in The Good Wife and The Good Fight) takes on the role of Hamlet at the Young Vic.

Jumbo is far from the first female actor to play the role. Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet on stage in Paris and London in 1899 and then became the first female actor to play Hamlet on film in 1900.

Frances de la Tour played the role on stage in London in 1979, and a series of female performers followed.

Maxime Peake hit the headlines with an astonishing performance as a male-identifying female-born Hamlet at Manchester Royal Exchange in 2014 under the direction of Sarah Frankcom – but none of that is to suggest that it’s common.

We’ve had little more than hints as to how Jumbo is set to approach the role. In an interview with David Tennant for his podcast, Jumbo said “I’m playing him as a him”.

Talking to Fabric Magazine she said “Hamlet is all about a rotten State. A situation where the elite are out of step with the people, and somebody is born into the middle of this and is quite confused by it.

“So, it is about the coming generation, and [director] Greg and I both found that idea really interesting in respect of so much that has happened over the last few years, socially and politically.”

So it looks like we can expect an angry, relevant production, reinstating the political heart that was stripped out of Frankcom’s production.

On handing over Jumbo’s OBE for services to drama, the Queen is reported to have advised the actor that “there is one very famous line that you must not forget”.

Clearly there’s more to Hamlet than that line – the play comes down to far more than being or not being – but maybe, in 2021, for a female actor and a person of colour, “To be or not to be Hamlet” really is the most important line.



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