When Cross-Sex Casting Doesn’t Quite Work

Philip Riccio as Joe Clark and Christopher Hunt (in the background) as John Crosbie in Michael Healey’s 1979, directed by Miles Potter. Photo: Benjamin Laird Arts Photography

Here’s an argument you’ve never heard me make before: in a limited number of cases, women should not be cast in male roles.

Cross-sex or ‘gender-neutral’ casting is now customary across English-speaking world because so many classical works (see first of all: Shakespeare) have so few great female roles. Woman playing Hamlet, or Lear, or Cesar, or Prospero, can work really really well–and there have been many notable cases where it did.

But cross-sex casting in contemporary plays? Why not write plays with women in them, rather than write all-male plays and then hire women for some of the male roles?

A couple of days ago I went to see Michael Healey’s latest, 1979. As readers of this blog will already know, I am a fan of Michael Healey’s work, both as playwright and actor. 1979 dramatizes the night when Joe Clark, Canada’s first Progressive Conservative Prime Minister after a 15-year hegemony by Trudeau’s Liberals, is about to lose his first budget vote and with it the government. Clark is PM for a few months only before PET returns as the leader of the Liberals and beats him in the next election–and goes on to campaign for the unity side in the Quebec referendum, repatriate the Constitution and introduce the Charter of Rights.

First Conservative Leader and first PM from out west, the non-charismatic Joe Who? however has integrity to burn–and a Red Tory vision of the country that does not pit region vs region, refrains from patronage and pork-barrelling, and is fundamentally anti-Thatcherist (Thatcher has just won the UK general election across the pond by antagonizing rather than unifying). Canada is different, Joe Clark is certain. The NDP and the Liberals are united in wanting to take his minority government down–everybody hates the gas tax he’s about to introduce, does nothing ever change in federal politics–while six of the members of his own caucus don’t bother showing up for this life-or-death vote. Does he start bargaining, threatening, cajoling in order to convert some opposition MPs? Does he simply postpone the vote for however long the government needs to line the ducks in a row, the not-unheard of and legal and legit parliamentary move? (Employed as recently as last month by one Theresa May before her Brexit deal vote in the UK Parliament, btw.)

Neither, actually. The Clark of 1979 (and this is probably close to what happened in real life) believes that if he can’t get the votes for the budget, he does not have the moral right to govern. And that’s it. The country will go back to the polls, where he will, he believes, properly beat PET this time and return with a majority.

Several figures visit Clark on this fateful night. Actor Christopher Hunt plays John Crosbie, Clark’s finance minister, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and for a few brief and pointless minutes in hard-to-pull-off-without-camp drag, Flora MacDonald. Just the glorious conversation between PET and Clark is in itself worth going to this play for, as is the one near the end, between the young page Stephen Harper and PM Clark. But Harper is played by a woman.

Namely, there’s a third actor in the cast, and her name is Jamie Konchak. She shines as Flora MacDonald and Clark’s wife Maureen McTeer, but as a very sleazy Brian Mulroney who will go on to win the next PC leadership race and become Canada’s answer to Reagan and Thatcher, she is drag-kinging it, parodying, camping it up. Not for a second did I believe that female-bodied and female-voiced Mulroney is in any way threatening to Clark in their scene of confrontation.

Worse, the final big conversation between the “Steve”, who has the advantage of knowing the future, in particular the future of the united Reform+PC Conservative Party too, and the amused and tolerant Clark just doesn’t work: the passionate monologues about hegemony, Thatcherism, the electoral benefits of charisma-less leaders, Canadian West, and how to hold on to power–none of that really rings through when told by a young woman performing a man. (Plus… the wigs are so bad I wondered if they were purchased at Dollarama)

The two female characters both complain at various points how sexist the Parliament Hill is–and how men’s hands on women’s behinds, including theirs, are not exactly a rare occurrence. That is a fact: the 1979 parliamentary life was still a colossal sausage-fest. Women in public life or adjacent to it via their husbands were being treated badly and patronized. Biggest decisions have been made by men and men only. The single-minded Stephen Harper and the sleazy, threatening Mulroney should have been played by men. The federal power circles were (and probably still are) that claustrophobic. A male body and deep-speaking voice is almost necessary in order to be granted admission. (Crystia Freeland is changing this now, luckily.)

There exist plays without women that are extremely good. I am not a fan of any kind of creation that denies the existence of women but I can’t pretend that such creations can’t be, in a limited number of existing cases, superb. Who would you cross-sex cast in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross? I don’t think it would work. What about, say, Michael Frayn’s Democracy, the play about Willy Brandt without a single female character? (It’s a good play, I was shocked to discover.) Or what about James Graham’s This House, which has one (1) female character, or his latest drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, which is largely an affair between factions of men? Or any of the BBC movies on British political life, like The Deal by Peter Morgan, on the deal between Blair and Brown? None of these would have worked I think with women playing characters like Blair and Brandt.

It’s hard to write women into historical political events, innit? because they are, to this day, most often excluded.  Casting women in roles of powerful men is kind of like asking us to pretend that this wasn’t the case.

But do see the play though and tell me if I’m wrong. Tickets here. They’re really affordable for arts workers, seniors, students, people willing to rush it (rush it, it’s never sold out); I got an excellent seat for $20.

One thought on “When Cross-Sex Casting Doesn’t Quite Work

  1. Excellent review. I’ll have to see the play soon.

    I live in Stratford, Ontario, and see a fair amount of Shakespeare-with-women these days. I’m always curious about the effect. This year, Julius Caesar with women as Brutus, Caesar, and Marc Antony worked exceedingly well. The Tempest, with a female Prospero, didn’t, I thought.

    To me a core of the play is Prospero’s act of radical charity at the end. Having captured his tormentors, men who wanted to steal his fortune and banish him to a desert isle, Prospero forgives them and proposes returning home to share fellowship and position in a warm, caring society.

    The shock is that he doesn’t kill them, torture them, or exact revenge. He forgives them. But when it is a woman who has outwitted those mistreating her and brought them under her power, the act of forgiving seems maternal, expected, and much less unusual. The moral that women are kinder than men is less radical than the Suggestion that we should dispense with revenge entirely.

    Keep up the good work! I always enjoy definitelytheopera even though I usually don’t reply.

    Jeff House

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