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Michael Coveney: Girls allowed on Walter board with Bard

By • West End

Harriet Walter's tremendous performance as Brutus in the all-girl Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse virtually sidesteps the question of why is she playing the role in the first place.

No-one in Phyllida Lloyd's prison play production actually says that she was the noblest Roman of them all, but she's no worse than the last two at the RSC - Sam Troughton and Paterson Joseph - and a good deal better in many respects. Troughton was unusually troubled and impetuous, more of a Cassius, really, while Joseph in Greg Doran's all-black version, with those big doe eyes and emotional mooniness, was more charismatic than coruscating.

Walter, in contrast, exhibits the fiercest intelligence in the role since John Wood, and thus proves her point, perhaps, that these great roles should be as available to women as they are to men. I agree, sort of, with reservations, but then I recall Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero at the Globe and I withdraw my consent completely.

But with the boys hogging Twelfth Night and (less controversially) Richard III at the Apollo - and I'd like to know Harriet's view of them cutting Queen Margaret altogether - it seems only fair that the girls should fight back. But is Cush Jumbo's Mark Antony as persuasive a performance as Mark Rylance's as Olivia? And can Ishia Bennison's as Casca be fairly compared to the wonderfully revelatory reading of Paul Chahidi as Maria?

I think yes, they can. The better the actor, the less the gender switch matters. Viola and Rosalind played by boys makes absolute sense as the roles were written for them in the first place, and Shakespeare knew exactly what gender-bending reverberations he was releasing in their characters. Interestingly, at the Apollo, the casting of Viola fails to exploit this obvious bonus.

When Fiona Shaw played Richard II at the National, she said she was playing the king, not the man, which always struck me as slightly disingenuous of her, especially as the whole point of Richard is that he finally yearns to be a man, not a king. Of course, you might say that he really yearns to be a woman, but that's another line of argument that Shaw never proposed. But many years ago, Frances de la Tour was a sensational Hamlet (at the old Half Moon, in its second incarnation along the Mile End Road), and the Globe's all-girl Taming of the Shrew gained huge buckets of playful irony and humour in its physical and sexual knockabout.

Kathryn Hunter's King Lear was a famously riveting account, but you'd never trade it for Michael Gambon's, or John Wood's (though I much preferred it to Derek Jacobi's). What Carol Ann Duffy is preparing for the RSC (and Linda Marlowe in the lead) in Queen Lear is something different; the feminist restoration of an ignored character, just as Mrs Vershinin was once given her own play in response to her absence (and possibly denigration) in Three Sisters.

What Walter proves is that a good actor can play anything, although in her case it helps that she can somehow flatten her chest, slick back her hair and acquire the masculine jaw and profile she first exhibited as a young boy in Joint Stock's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. At the same time, as she once proved in Timberlake Wertenbaker's Three Birds Alighting on a Field, she can be as magnificently bare-breasted on a stage as the next girl (or boy?).

Taking a stand is all part of the feminist experience; men never have to, as they have all the advantages and privileges to start with, so they say. Maureen Lipnan's merry widow in the new comedy at Hampstead, Old Money, is not driven into drag, but she does take hold of her life in a way that Brutus and Cassius would have approved.

It's not a great evening, but it was good to see Lipman doing something different, starting from a point of cowed colourlessness and buttoned-up resentment at her husband's funeral before flowering like a late autumn rose. It's a shame that Sarah Wooley's play will draw unflattering comparisons with April de Angelis's Jumpy, but it's a valiant attempt to re-draw the battle lines in the ongoing sex war - as well as in the tussle between mothers and daughters.

The next question is: will we ever see Maureen Lipman's Macbeth or Angelo? I doubt it, somehow; but I wouldn't bet against a Leontes some time soon from Dame Harriet.


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