The Pleasance Theatre, London
From Glenda Jackson as King Lear and Maxine Peake as Hamlet to Phyllida Lloyd's all-female versions of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest, it is now becoming quite common for women to take on Shakespearean roles. But director Cressida Carré has taken a bold approach to test this concept with a very modern classic, Laura Wade's Posh.
Originally with 12 male roles and only two female, the play reveals interesting twists by casting women in all the parts. Otherwise, the text remains the same with no gender changes like Tamsin Greig becoming a gay Malvolia in the National's Twelfth Night. The result enhances some aspects of the play while lessening the impact of others but overall offering an interesting exploration of how gender affects our responses.
Having seen the original 2010 production at the Royal Court, I was struck by how much my experience changed. I never really forgot that women were now playing the very masculine roles of members of the reactionary Riot Club, inspired by Oxford's notorious Bullingdon Club that counted Boris Johnson and David Cameron among its members. In some cases, it does transcend gender such as Serena Jennings' impressive performance as Alistair Ryle, steadily finding his voice as an angry conservative sick of liberalism and populist politics. Sarah Thom also stands out as Jeremy, a former Riot Club member and now a leading player in the ruling Conservative Party – no leap when you are familiar with Thatcher and Theresa May. Here it is more about status and power than gender. But, for me, most of the young Oxford men remained feminine despite their formal suits and masculine posturing. As club newcomer Ed Montgomery, Verity Kirk is more of a puppy-like prefect at a girls private school, which is not a criticism as she makes you look at the character in a different way – and she manages to get big laughs with almost every line.
This is at the heart of casting young women in these testosterone-oozing roles: their characters' youthful posturing becomes more ridiculous and laughable, pretending at power with their arrogance and self-importance. This may expose their antics as “romantic nonsense” and “silly student japes” but it creates more of a contrast with the adult world they are preparing for, where they really will have power and influence outside of the democratic process. With this darker undercurrent diminished, the boys also become less menacing, even when their drunken raucousness moves into mysogny, sexual aggression and violence. Seeing men intimidate and threaten the female characters was shocking in the original production and, while still unsettling, this has less impact when carried out by female actors. No doubt, my responses expose my attitudes to gender so the experience may well be different for women and other men, especially if they are able to forget the characters' sex change.
However, the production succeeds because of the brilliance of Laura Wade's writing and Carré's masterly direction. Its portrayal of Britain's ruling elite is just as perceptive and horrifying seven years on. Having premiered the same year that the Tories returned to power, it gives voice to an Establishment angry at how it has felt challenged and undermined by social change and populist feeling during a Labour government. Chillingly, the Tory oligarch Jeremy talks of how, whatever happens, the elite will always hold onto power as it will “adapt to survive” – foreshadowing how Oxford graduates such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Theresa May have manipulated populist feelings to remain in government.
The production also works because of a strong cast who create distinct individuals out of what could easily be posh stereotypes. All credit goes to Alice Brittain, Amani Zardoe, Cassie Bradley, Gabby Wong, Jessica Siân, Lucy Aarden, Macy Nyman and Molly Hanson as well as Jennings and Kirk as “the finest sperm in the country”, with some colour-blind casting too, assembled by Carré and casting director Esta Charkham. Toni Peach is also excellent in the only two roles that were originally female. Aside from the device of making it an all-female cast, this is a powerful, enjoyable production. It may lose some of the masculine menace of the original but brings out more of the comedy in the writing and gives us plenty to ponder about the impact of gender in theatre performance.
Running to April 22, 2017
Photos: Darren Bell