Twelfth Night at the Rose Playhouse until 30th October – A gender experiment: Cast play opposite gender

Twelfth Night at the Rose Playhouse until 30th October  – A gender experiment: Cast play opposite gender. 


Guest Review by Liz Dyer

There’s an interesting experiment going on at the Rose Playhouse this October: not one, not two but four different productions of Twelfth Night, performed in rep and addressing the issue of gender casting in classical theatre. This isn’t a new topic of conversation, although it certainly seems to be one that’s coming up more and more often. In recent months, I’ve enjoyed a reverse-gender Taming of the Shrew and a gender-blind Much Ado, not to mention a one-woman show about a girl who just wants to play Hamlet in her school play. Each production’s put a new and unique spin on a play that many of us will have seen performed before – but this is the first time I’ve heard of a company taking on multiple versions at the same time, to give the audience a chance to compare and contrast.



Natasha Rickman’s ambitious experiment includes an all-female, all-male, own gender and opposite gender version of Twelfth Night; I went along to watch the last of these, the opposite gender performance. It’s a somewhat potted version of Shakespeare’s play, at just 90 minutes – necessarily so, since most of the actors play more than one part. This causes a certain amount of mayhem; with only six actors to play all the characters, there’s bound to be a bit of overlap, and it can get quite confusing if you don’t know who everyone is. We also, sadly, lose a lot of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, whose drunken antics are usually one of the comedy highlights.

That said, this also shows the versatility of the cast, who can switch instantly from one character to another, simply by removing an item of clothing or changing their accent. Julia Goulding and Elizabeth Andrewartha prove particularly deft at this, often having to change character in the middle of a scene, and yet still managing to make that change clear to the audience.

What about the opposite gender casting? It’s definitely an interesting twist, especially in a story that already features a girl dressed as a boy (and so, ironically, Viola/Cesario, played by Christopher Logan, ends up being the only actor on stage playing the right gender – except it’s really wrong, of course. Confused yet?). The cast are clearly having fun with it, and successfully break down any expected gender barriers in successfully conveying the personality of the characters. I do think, though, that to truly appreciate the experiment it’s necessary to see more than one version of the show, to appreciate how it changes from one cast to another. I’d also be curious to see a similar experiment conducted with a play that has a dominant male lead character, like King Lear or Macbeth, and where reversing the genders of the actors has the potential to significantly change the dynamic of the story.

Taking this performance on its own, then, rather than as part of a set, Twelfth Night is a lot of fun, with all the usual confusion and chaos that makes it one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies. Henry Gilbert is an elegant, aloof Olivia, in contrast with Peter Pearson‘s mischievous Maria. Shuna Snow brings us a particularly obsequious and unpleasant Malvolio, whose yellow stockings and grimacing smile provide much of the comedy.

A modern idea in a very old setting, the production makes good use of the Rose’s unique space, the water’s edge providing an ideal location for the shipwreck scenes, and on the platform, the proximity of the actors to the audience allows for a bit of interaction (watch out if Sir Toby Belch is nearby).

Overall, this is a really entertaining show, but if you don’t know the story beforehand it could be quite difficult to keep track of what’s going on (as my friend discovered; I had to fill in some gaps for her afterwards). I also love the idea of the gender experiment, but don’t feel I’ve really seen the results from watching just one show. That said, having enjoyed this one, I’m more than happy to head back and see at least one more. It’ll be really interesting to see if and how it changes.


Twelfth Night at the Rose Playhouse until 30th October  – A gender experiment: Cast play opposite gender. 


Guest Review by Liz Dyer

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