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Theatre Casting doubt on authenticity

PETER MASON sees an ill-conceived 'gender-blind' Shakespeare production

Henry VI
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe London

THE GLOBE’S artistic director Michelle Terry, claims in her programme notes that this staging of Henry VI explores “the power and perception of the feminine.” And yet Queen Margaret, the key female figure in the play, is played by a man. What’s the point?

The gangly Steffan Donnelly, towering above the rest of the cast in his ill-fitting red frock, no more looks or feels like a woman than Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot, and he's far less entertaining to boot.

Essentially, what we witness is a man in a dress being a man. The “power and perception of the feminine” is nowhere to be seen.

Donnelly’s role is one that any female actor would love to play. So why not actually give it to a woman? How much better this production would have been if Sarah Amankwah, head and shoulders above the rest of the cast as Eleanor, had been cast as Henry’s wife.

Gender-blind casting is a valid principle but it should only be practiced when circumstances suit and the correct resources are at hand.

Right now, and particularly, it seems, at the Globe, casting decisions are being made on grounds other than what is best for a play and without thought for the audience.

Manly Margaret is not the only example in this performance. Most of the women playing men, including Nina Bowers as Suffolk and Sophie Russell as Richard, are deeply unconvincing in their roles, relying on groin-thrusting and wide-legged swaggering as cliched signposts of their manliness, when male actors might have conveyed more subtlety.

Subtlety, indeed, is not much in evidence throughout. While directors Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian have made a good job of combining the second and third parts of Henry VI in a way that’s easy to follow, they’ve stacked it so full of cheap stunts — football chants, chainsaws and severed heads in bags — that it’s hard to take it seriously.

Nor is it easy to focus on getting any substance from Shakespeare’s words, which in any case are delivered, with the exception of Amankwah and Philip Arditti as Warwick, largely without conviction.

Add to that a preposterous rag bag of costumes — Henry in Hunter wellies and track suit, Suffolk dressed like a 1970s pimp — and you have a real mess of a production with few redeeming features.

Runs until January 26, box office: shakespearesglobe.com

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