The amount of column inches generated in discussion of Phylida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar would be admirable if the content of the articles had done much more than highlight just how deeply conservative the British theatre scene really is and how it still runs far behind Europe when it comes to pushing new boundaries.
It is this reviewer’s opinion that such arguments are so lacking in depth that they brook little need for response. Indeed the best rejoinder is to point across London to the Apollo Theatre where Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry are currently commanding plenty of column inches of their own but mainly on account of their acting abilities rather than any discussion of gender.
The usual argument is that an all-male casts generates its legitimacy through ‘tradition’ but this is somewhat undermined by the plaudits given to the RSC’s superb all-Black production of Julius Caesar, or by idly speculating whether Rylance and Fry are performing under torchlight and with an unruly audience urinating in the stalls.
An all-female production is necessary due to the rather obvious point that Shakespeare, like the majority of pre-20th century playwrights, did not write many great parts for women and considering we have a much greater attachment to the classics than our European neighbours – should we really exclude so much fine actors from some of the greatest roles in the English language?
Indeed let us return to Shakespeare himself to labour the point yet further: ‘the play’s the thing, Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King’ Stretching this laborious point to breaking possibly, it reminds us that the purpose of the play is to elicit reaction, to be a delivery mechanism for showing to the audience something that it wasn’t expecting. On this score it is hard to deny that Phylida Lloyd has more than succeeded.
So the reasonable question to ask is whether the decision to use an all-female cast works. Broadly the answer is yes but not with unnecessary problems that seem to have resulted from an attempt to pre-empt questions over the casting decisions.