Making a joke out of Lear

June 19, 1991

By Angela Matheson

King Lear
Sydney Theatre Company
Staged by Philip Parsons, Wayne Harrison and John Senczuk
Reviewed by Angela Matheson

Does the Sydney Theatre Company believe that King Lear was meant to be a comedy? Or did it have some other reason, in its recent production, for giving the challenging and highly political roles of Cordelia, Goneril and Regan to men?

The STC justifies the casting of men in female roles by claiming it is recreating original Elizabethan theatre conditions, in which all roles were played by men.

But however sexist Elizabethan companies may have been, they did their best to make the men playing female roles look like women. Recent research has revealed that casting agents tracked down feminine-looking boys with dulcet voices and smooth skin. Breasts and hips were cosmetically created, and actors wore mechanical devices to tilt their carriage like women's. Expensive gowns and other finery combined with elaborate wigs to create a convincing "female" character. The company was often judged by how well it could "do" a woman.

The STC knows nothing of this. The blurb on the program reveals inaccurate and archaic research into Elizabethan theatre. The unfortunate actors playing Lear's daughters were reminiscent of a burlesque of the three wise men in a church pantomime. With their white linen head gear flapping around prominent Adam's apples and powder-blue pleated skirts sitting uneasily on narrow hips, these "women"would have been booed out of any Elizabethan theatre within seconds. The audiences at the STC were more restrained — they tittered.

In truth, it was hard to know whether to laugh or cry when Cordelia's "feminine" merits were perused by Lear and prospective husbands who stood a good few inches shorter. It was clear, however, that the relations between women who must rely on their wits and intellect to survive and powerful men, which are central to Lear, were not an issue for the ham-fisted directing trio of Wayne Harrison, Philip Parsons and John Senczuk.

Political and cultural — not theatrical — factors barred women from the Elizabethan Theatre. Dr Richard Madelaine, head of the English Department at the University of NSW and a specialist in Elizabethan Theatre working conditions, believes that women may have been prevented from acting because this would have entitled them to economic independence in the form of shares in the theatre company — an idea abhorrent to the patriarchal

Elizabethan age.

So perhaps it is an ironic accuracy on the STC's part to deprive 20th century female actors of a livelihood by re-creating, however badly, 16th century theatre conditions.

As a company required by law to implement Equal Employment Opportunity policies, the STC is guilty of industrial misconduct. The 14-member male cast of Lear follows a production of 1 Henry 1V in the STC's "Shakespier Experiment" which offered two minor roles to female actors.

It is almost impossible for female actors to do much about the shabby treatment doled out to them. Demand for work far exceeds roles available, and actresses have little industrial clout. If they complain about discrimination, they are labelled "difficult" and blacklisted.

Actor's Equity has been trying to raise the level of consciousness in the industry about the predicament of actresses. Typically, they receive less work and fewer principal roles because the theatre industry chooses established plays and promotes the writing of new plays top-heavy with male characters.

Yet the STC, as one of Australia's wealthiest and most powerful theatre companies, not only continues the tradition of promoting male-dominated plays, but also chooses to give what female roles it has to men.

The merits of reproducing original Shakespearean theatre conditions is questionable even when handled by those who have theatrical skill and genuine knowledge of the politics of theatre. The STC claims audiences will "join with actors in an imaginative collaboration of remarkable vividness quite different from contemporary theatre". Perhaps the STCshould work on making contemporary theatre more vivid. And in doing so, perhaps it should try to make theatre a medium in which the right of female actors to work in decent roles is considered as important as pursuing dubious artistic "experiments".

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