Updated: Friday, 7th August 2020 @ 1:30pm

'Throwing down the gauntlet': Royal Exchange artistic director 'won't put up with' theatre gender bias anymore

'Throwing down the gauntlet': Royal Exchange artistic director 'won't put up with' theatre gender bias anymore

Exclusive by Judith Hawkins

A Manchester theatre’s artistic director says she is ‘throwing down the gauntlet’ on the issue of female casting by choosing Maxine Peake to play Hamlet.

Peake is to take on the iconic role of Hamlet in a gender-swapping production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre next year.

And the theatre’s artistic director Sarah Frankcom claims the casting choice is part of a wider push for more female roles in theatre.

“We are throwing down the gauntlet. There is now a generation of women who are not going to put up with it anymore,” Frankcom told MM.

The fact that male theatrical roles outnumber female roles two to one was highlighted in research conducted by The Guardian in collaboration with Elizabeth Freestone, Artistic Director of Pentabus Theatre, Ludlow.  

In contrast to the situation on stage, figures from Ipsos Mori revealed that on average 68% of theatre audiences are women.

Of course, when it comes to producing the works of Shakespeare there is an inherent gender imbalance due to the original male only casts, with 155 female characters compared to 826 male characters across the Bard’s plays.

At this early stage in production Frankcom has not yet finalised the details of how she will incorporate a female Hamlet. However the Director argues that there is no reason why the gender of characters can’t be changed. 

“I know that it will be a female Hamlet not an actress playing a man, because I’m interested in the implications of Hamlet being a woman. I will also be changing the gender of other characters,” Frankcom revealed.

Asked why she had decided to turn her hand to Shakespeare, Frankcom said: “I wanted a challenge and there is no bigger challenge than Hamlet. I first saw the play at the Royal Exchange when I was a child and it had a big effect on me, so I’ve always had a very intensive relationship with it. Plus Maxine and I always try to do things that scare us.”

Frankcom has collaborated with Salford-based Peake on several productions, including The Children’s House and Miss Julie at the Royal Exchange, and most recently on The Masque of Anarchy at Manchester’s International Festival.

While discussing why she particularly enjoys working with Peake, Frankcom is full of praise for the actress. “She makes every role her own and the audiences respond to her. She is a mercurial actress, transforms for every role, and is emphatic, compassionate and very generous emotionally. She is also an exciting writer.”

Commissioning more work from new writers is one of the ways Frankcom believes the lack of female roles can be tackled. The Royal Exchange has a good reputation for casting actresses, being the only subsidised theatre that employed more women than men in a survey by performers’ union Equity.

“The Royal Exchange is leading the way with more actresses than actors, but there is a bigger problem in that we need more roles for older actresses,” said Frankcom.

“Great actresses like Maxine have roles now, but what will happen in 20 years time?”

Image courtesy of Manchester International Festival via YouTube, with thanks.

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