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Men in Female roles

By Tom Giles

Ambitious and innovative casting has presented us with a wide variety of valuable uses for cross gender casting, proving that the old staple of the theatre still serves purpose on the modern stage. A little more substantial than seeing Gok Wan play the fairy godmother in the Christmas panto.

With last month's announcement that David Suchet is returning to the West End stage as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's classic The Importance of Being Earnest, we take a look at male actors playing female roles in Theatreland and on Broadway. 

David Suchet as Lady Bracknell - The Importance of Being Earnest

As we look towards 2015, Wilde's timeless satire of Victorian ideals is set to prove its worthiness on the modern stage once again this spring. This time it's at the Vaudeville theatre, with David Suchet (pictured) taking on the role of Lady Bracknell, and looking particularly fetching in plum velvet. Whilst Adrian Noble's revival is to be the first in the UK in years to have a male playing Wilde's famous female lead, this is by no means a ground-breaking casting choice. 2011 saw both Geoffrey Rush and Brian Bedford take on the part in Australia and on Broadway respectively, both to glowing critical responses. Speaking of his role as Bracknell at the Bristol Old Vic in 2005, Michael Fitzgerald claimed that "A man can play Lady Bracknell because she is sexless I don't think that woman is fond of anything". (The Guardian).

Indeed, Suchet follows a long line of male predecessors, and he is only the latest addition to a long list of men who have played female roles in the West End recently; here's the pick of the bunch.

Craige Els & Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull - Matilda

  Dozens of fans are often found queuing outside the Cambridge Theatre in the early am in the hope of grabbing day seats for Matilda, and having the pleasure of seeing Craige Else's riotously well received portrayal of the terrifying Miss Trunchbull. Els (pictured) took on the role from Bertie Carvel, who enjoyed rave reviews, his performance described by Lyn Gardner as "a show-stopping turn. Imagine a cross dressing King Herod on steroids with a jutting bosom that is deployed like a weapon of mass destruction to wipe out small children at 100 paces" (The Guardian).

In contrast to the quintessentially stony-faced and pompous Britishness that you can well imagine Suchet bringing to Lady Bracknell, Els and Carvel have by all accounts given Miss Truchbull the ridiculous, formidable and joyous portrayal that Roald Dahl's childhood classic so richly deserves

Aaron Anthony as Lady Capulet - Shakespeare in Love

A play that otherwise sticks to conventional casting choices, Aaron Anthony (pictured) portrays Lady Capulet as part of the new fresh casting for the show in 2015. This cross gender casting continues the synthesis of Shakespeare's original work, and Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman's original take on Romeo & Juliet. The screen version does not switch gender roles at all, and Lee Hall's stage adaptation follows suit for the most part. The exception to this rule is Lady Capulet. Though a relatively small part in the production, this provides a tactful distinction between the forms of screen and stage, as well as a subtle nod towards the time period in which the play is set.  

Michael Ball, Brian Conley & Mark Benton as Edna Turnblad - Hairspray

  For a more light-hearted turn, Edna Turnblad's generously roomy costumes have been adequately filled over the years by several British favourites. Mrs Turnblad is undoubtedly closer to what we traditionally associate with 'drag' performances in the modern day, however all three of her 21st century performers embraced the fact that Edna is much more than this. Mark Benton commented that "she's no panto dame, she's a lot deeper than that - I'm still trying to work out her out to be honest." (Whats on Stage). Hairspray is surely one of the most joyous productions to ever tour the UK, and the cross gender casting of Edna is a huge contribution to this.

R. Lowe as Mary Sunshine - Chicago on Broadway

Although admittedly this staple Broadway production is one that many of the West End faithful will never have the pleasure of seeing, it seems bad form to not give Mary Sunshine a mention here. Other than somewhat differing in style to the classically British Oscar Wilde, Mary differs significantly from the previous roles in that, until the second act, the audience aren’t necessarily aware of the actor’s sex which, if nothing else, is testament to Lowe’s amazing falsetto performance. Once again, this is an enthralling aspect to the script that is exclusive to the stage; Mary is played by actress Christine Baranski in the film version. Having recently celebrated 10 years in the role, R. Lowe’s portrayal of the famous press reporter continues to dazzle audiences in this notoriously brash, luxurious piece of musical theatre.  

So, after taking a look at some top "ladies" to have been on the stage we can now look forward to spring at the Vaudeville, where Mr Suchet will look to add to the growing pedigree of cross gender casting on the world’s most prestigious stages. We can only hope that he comes close to the dizzying heights of Edith Evans, and her famous 14 syllable delivery of A Handbag?