Is there a more patently absurd, and distinctly disturbing, title for an opinion piece written by a white, male theatre critic in 2017 than this one? : The Thought Police’s rush for gender equality on stage risks the death of the great male actor.

Yet, Dominic Cavendish, theatre critic for The Telegraph, published an opinion piece with that title on February 23.

The underlying theme of Cavendish’s opinion is so offensive, so disturbingly biased, so plainly misogynistic, so glibly presented as “level-headed discussion” that, frankly, it should be sufficient cause for his immediate dismissal from office. Any critic who thinks he can pen such a piece and then be taken seriously when called upon to critique a production where a female actor plays a part written for a man is unhinged.

Let’s start with the notion of the “Thought Police”. About whom is Cavendish talking? Those artistic directors or producers or other creatives who make final decisions about the way in which a play is to be presented and who plays what part, how and why.

Just as those people are entitled to decide what costumes people will wear, what sets will be used, and what lighting will illuminate (or otherwise) proceedings, so, too, they get to decide who plays what part. Whether any of that works out is another matter, but in 2017 every part in every play can, and should be, up for grabs by either gender.

Only an ingrained and insufferably arrogant sense of patriarchal white male supremacy can possibly be the rationale for any other position.

For centuries all but a handful of plays were written by men and women were excluded from appearing in them. That is not a theatrical tradition; it is just an incident of regrettable history. Parts have been written for women since the earliest days of Ancient Greek theatre, at least, but women have been excluded, by men and those women who chose to follow the male line unquestionably, for a similar amount of time.

Dominic CavendishThe notion of the “great male actor” only arose because women were excluded from an equal footing with men as actors from the start. By now, we should be talking about our great actors, not their gender.

Cavendish dismisses Tamsin Greig as a “comedy actress” and laments her “landing of this much-loved male comic role” (of Malvolio in the National’s Twelfth Night) even though he calls her performance “marvellous”.

This is the same Cavendish who wrote of David Suchet’s grotesque Lady Bracknell in 2015:

Whenever Suchet is in sight, you’re less inclined to notice – or care – about this lacklustre state of affairs. The man known to millions as Poirot has shone more brightly elsewhere but, still, I can’t imagine this gift of a gorgon role being better handled by another male actor.

Rather than over-emphasising his feminine side, or stooping to the crasser, panto-dame end of female-impersonation, Suchet locates the mannishness in this haughty, formidable creature. Character and player meet in the middle – you see the join but it barely matters, and it helps cement the work’s delight in inverted norms, assumed identities and double lives.

Cavendish could not think of another male actor who he thought might be better in the role. Perhaps Cavendish should have been thinking about something else? Lady Bracknell is a role written for a woman and played many times by talented women and sometimes by vainglorious men. Why is it okay for Suchet, or any man, to deprive a working female actor of work, in a part written for a woman, if the same opportunity is not offered to a female actor in relation to a role written for a male actor?

The core of Cavendish’s current argument is this:

My growing concern, though, is that in breaking down conventions and reaching for alternative insights, men are being elbowed aside. Redress the balance? Fine. Let in some fresh air? Great. But the entrenchment of this tendency may also be stifling and oppressive. Will every production that follows “conventional” casting now be deemed regressive? Will we even start to view plays that figure men in main, or majority, roles as detrimental to the cause of equality?

Let’s just unpick that:

1. Men are not being elbowed aside. This is an absurd proposition for which Cavendish offers no evidence. Male actors play more leading and featured supporting roles than women, all over the Western World.

2. The entrenchment of the tendency for the balance being redressed from being overwhelmingly in favour of men is precisely how “equality” is achieved. Change is necessary. Fundamentally, inevitably, overwhelmingly.

3. Only those who want the patriarchal world to remain unaltered will consider the entrenchment of the tendency referred to above as stifling and oppressive. They want the world to remain fixed in a patriarchal bubble of inequality for women. They cannot be permitted to succeed.

4. Every production that does not consider any gender for any role should be considered regressive. This is not the same as saying that every production must include gender-blind casting, but every production should give other genders an equal footing to men when considering how the production will be staged.

5. Plays that figure men in the main, or in a majority of, roles are detrimental to the cause of equality.

Shakespeare himself gives the golden rule:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.

Why is that so hard to implement? If everyone treated all men and all women as actors, who can do anything their skill permits, then Equality would be achieved.

Dominic CavendishCavendish misunderstands why Glenda Jackson was cast as King Lear, or Maxine Peake as Hamlet, or Michelle Terry as a Henry V, or Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet as long ago as 1899. He suggests the rationale as:

The underlying aim, I hasten to add, is a noble one: to let actresses, too often consigned to subordinate roles (and only granted access to the stage in this country after the Restoration), a chance to feast on the best of drama.

That is so condescending as to be risible.

The rationale for every woman being cast in a role written for a man to play is simple. Anything men can do, women can do too.

Glenda Jackson proved that effortlessly in her snarling, revelatory handling of Lear; over at the Barbican about the same time, Antony Sher was playing the same role. Only Jackson managed to be regal, impossible, frail, desolate and violently lost in pain and confusion. Sher was a shouty, pouty, bearded, asexual buffoon. It was no contest. Only one of those Lears was played by a woman and only one came across as a man.  The best one.

Self-servingly, Cavendish opines:

I don’t have an instinctive prejudice against such experimentation. In fact, I was positive about all productions cited above, and think Greig’s performance is marvellous too.

Actually, he does have an instinctive prejudice. It’s the same prejudice every white man, and many non-white men, have: society tells them that women are inferior. The trick is to ignore society and see the truth.

Dominic CavendishCavendish concludes this way:

Dare I also remark that if you stopped someone in the street and asked whether they thought actresses were getting a rough ride these days, the chances are that they’d demur. Wouldn’t they rave about Dames Dench, Mirren and Smith, Imelda Staunton, Helen McCrory, Sheridan Smith et al. Whether it’s Euripides or Wycherley, Chekhov or Ibsen, Ayckbourn or McGuinness, there are great roles galore for women. So, at the risk of sounding like a Carry On character – or, worse, being eviscerated on social media – I’d urge restraint, and issue a plea to female thespians to get their mitts off male actors’ parts.

Nothing could more eloquently establish Cavendish’s prejudice than his own words.

Apparently 6 successful female actors having visibility to the public is sufficient to suggest that women, in general, are not “getting a rough ride these days”. What arrant nonsense. Being able to have some members of the public nod in agreement to Cavendish’s proposition (men, probably) merely establishes that women are having an ever so slightly less difficult ride these days than they did over the last several centuries.

Nothing more and nothing less.

One might not have always agreed with Cavendish’s view of theatrical performances in the past, but having read this piece, one now knows not to ever take any notice of anything he says about theatre again.

Dominic CavendishHe has no business offering critiques of the work of women. He should leave that to people who understand that we no longer live in 1650, 1750 or even 1950.

It’s 2017 – and equality for women in the theatre is a long, long way off.

In truth, women should get their gloves off, not get “their mitts off male actors’ parts”. Male actors have been cocooned by wrong-headed favouritism for too long.

Cavendish’s dangerously subversive opinion piece simply makes Equality that much more difficult to achieve. He should be ashamed.

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.