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Michael Coveney: Women fight back in opera and Shakespeare while Timothy Spall triumphs at Cannes

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has become the latest high-profile figure to air their views on the opera critics' comments about Tara Erraught's performance in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne

Causing a stir: Teodora Gheorghiu and Tara Erraught in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne
© Bill Cooper

The row over sexism among male opera critics rumbles on, so no male drama critic has yet been foolish enough to make anything of Kathleen Turner's deliberately rumpled, unflattering appearance as a drunken ex-bartender in Bakersfield Mist at the Duchess.

The fact that she looks unkempt in a costume disaster of blue denim jeans and mannish checked shirts is exactly the point of her performance (or a significant one), and the point is underlined in her trailer trash manner and ball-breaking demeanour.

Turner at the after-party - as you can see from Dan Wooller's pictures for WOS - is another, beautiful proposition entirely. Onstage, she's someone else: it's called acting.

Even the professional singers have tripped up in damning the critics for their references to Tara Erraught's "dumpy" Octavian in Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne; Kiri Te Kanawa, no less, saying that the singer's coat is a shocker and her wig should be stamped on.

Sorry, Kiri, I assume the design team knew what they were doing and went for the naff, unflattering option for a reason. Dame Kiri, and the critics, obviously think Octavian should look how she usually looks: svelte, androgynously sexy, beguiling; the critics' mistake was to make their disapproval sound personal, and not weigh their harrumphing insults in the scales of analysis and interpretation.

On Sunday, the Observer printed a lazily selective rogues' gallery of critics, suggesting an old boys' club, 70 percent chaps, although three of them - Matthew Bond and David Bennun of the Mail on Sunday and Paul Taylor of the Independent - were treated to the sexist indignity of a black silhouette instead of a mug shot.

And talking of indignity: for two weeks, the Daily Telegraph online has been running a story by Tim Walker about Joan Plowright retiring from the stage as she's finally gone blind, after ten years of macular degeneration; and they've illustrated the text with a picture not of Joan, but of indefatigable first-nighter Blanche Marvin.

Nuns on the run and birds on the Bard

Tonight's opening at the Royal Opera House of Poulenc's riveting and austerely staged Dialogues des Carmélites (I saw Tuesday's dress rehearsal) gives with one hand and takes with the other in the sexism battle. There are no men in the chorus. And the nuns all get their heads chopped off. This final scene is done like a slowed down-Martha Graham ballet, the nuns falling one by one where they stand as the tremendous music - Simon Rattle returning in triumph after some years to the Covent Garden pit - complete with metallic scything sounds and whooshes for the guillotine, blows them away.

Still, it's a defiantly feminist opera in many ways, and certainly if you're playing the numbers game. With the Donmar Warehouse announcing an all-female Henry IV­ - a conflation of Parts 1 and 2, cheekily pipping the RSC to their London post at the Barbican with the same plays in December - it's all girls a-go-go, though Phyllida Lloyd's production team does fall back on chaps for lighting and music (Neil Austin and Gary Yershon). Even if I can't see it, I still can't wait to see Harriet Walter's King Henry - can it possibly be better than Jasper Britton's for the RSC? - though her astonishing Brutus in the Donmar's all-female Julius Caesar was much more of an eye-opener than an eye-liner job.

Spall joins the party at last in Cannes for Mr Turner

Timothy Spall with son Rafe
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Timothy Spall was adjudged best actor in Cannes last Sunday and had to extract his finger from a greasy pipe on his boat in Holland and high-tail it back to the South of France to pick up his award. His speech was both funny and tearful, and he paid fulsome tribute to his wife, Shane, and his children (including the actor Rafe Spall) who helped him through his leukaemia scare 17 years ago, just as he completed work on another Mike Leigh film, Secrets and Lies.

That latter film was nominated for four Oscars (though Spall didn't figure), and the Oscars will come calling again, surely, for Spall and Leigh - their seventh film together - when Mr Turner is seen beyond the crop of festivals it now graces before going on general release in the UK in November. Mr Turner is one of the best films about an artist ever made, and Dick Pope's cinematography has been rightly lauded in five-star reviews across Europe and on both sides of the Atlantic.

As for Spall, the performance is his Charles Laughton-esque apogee (his JMW Turner is a match, easily, for Laughton's Rembrandt), his climactic collaboration with Leigh, and it caps so many other great, idiosyncratic performances since Trevor Nunn cast him as Andrei in Three Sisters and young Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby.

In Leigh's Life is Sweet, he played Aubrey, a character Spall delicately described as "obsessed with shagging," a self-deluding trend-setter determined to bring haute cuisine to Enfield. Aubrey's menu at the Regrette Rien ("très exclusive") included, prophetically, such delights as tripe soufflé, king prawn in jam sauce, chilled brains, prune quiche, liver in lager and – "my pied de resistance" – grilled trotters on eggs over-easy. Bliss, like the whole of his slobbering performance in that film, and in Mr Turner, where he captures the grunting, grumpy outsiderism of Turner, his cussed genius and smouldering humanity to something like utter perfection; and he makes you cry, too.