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Women in male roles

By Jess Meaden


Last month, in honour of the announcement that David Suchet is to take on the role of Lady Bracknell in the Vaudeville Theatre’s 2015 production of The Importance of Being Earnest, we talked about actors who have taken on a female role during their stage career. If you missed that post, you can click here to catch up.

Since giving so much credit to the lovely gents who’ve bravely swapped their boxers for bloomers, we figured it would only be fair to raise a glass to the ladies who’ve likewise traded make-up for moustaches in a stage role.

A Little History...


The presence of women in male stage roles has, historically, been typically dominant in two specific genres of theatre: Shakespeare and Pantomime. Where the likes of The Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company have housed women playing typically male-cast roles for some time, it has become particularly notable in the last decade with names such as Maxine Peake and Anne Hathaway playing some of Shakespeare’s biggest characters both in Manchester and across the pond on Broadway.

In Panto, women have been playing young male roles ever since Eliza Povey first took to the stage as Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk in 1819 - preferred to men for their high voice, small frames and lack of facial hair. In recent years we’ve seen both Bonnie Langford and Allison Williams play Peter Pan – with Williams involved in NBC’s live broadcast of the Broadway show just last year.

Here’s our pick of the ladies who’ve become ‘the man of the house’ in recent years:

Treading the boards...


Kathryn Hunter






Yes, you’ve seen her before - this lovely Olivier Award-winning lady played Mrs Figg, Harry’s neighbour, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. But long before she swapped the muggle world for a more magical one, she’d become somewhat accustomed to playing male characters in a number of well-known productions. These have included playing the title role in Richard III (2003), Mr Ido in The Bee (2006), the Fool in King Lear (2010) and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2013).

Fiona Shaw






Another Harry Potter actress who’s well-known for once playing a Richard. Aunt Petunia – aka Fiona Shaw – took on the role of Richard II in Deborah Warner’s 1995 production of the play. Feedback was unfortunately mixed, with The Sunday Telegraph brandishing it ‘A disastrous performance’ but The Independent praising it ‘deliberately uncomfortable and compelling’.

Anne Hathaway






Long before she lay toothless and near-bald belting out I Dreamed A Dream in a pre-revolutionary France, Miss Hathaway tried her hand in a male stage role when she played Viola/Cesario in Twelfth Night on Broadway (2009) – and to great reviews.

Pippa Nixon






Pippa played The Bastard in King Lear (2012) and Rosalind (who disguises as a man) in As You Like It (2013), where she cropped her hair short and decided to not wear an ounce of make-up for the duration of her time in the role. For her next male part, she aspires to play Hamlet and/or Henry V.

Maxine Peake






BAFTA-nominated actress Maxine Peake impressed both audiences and critics with her interpretation of Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange last year. Speaking about the role, Peake said: ‘Sometimes, as an actress, there have been male roles where I've thought, I could do that, I could get my head into that. Just because I haven't got the appropriate genitalia doesn't mean that I can't understand that’.

Whilst on screen...


Glenn Close






The Emmy Award-winner and original Cruella de Vil produced, starred and co-wrote Albert Nobbs in 2012; a film based on George Moore’s short story about a woman who has to disguise herself as a man in order to find work and survive a 19th century Dublin. She first played the role on stage in New York at the beginning of her career.

Tilda Swinton






The Academy Award-winning actress played young nobleman Orlando in the 1992 film directed by Sally Potter and based on the hit novel by Virginia Woolf. Swinton’s character becomes frustrated and disgusted by the way in which men act and so comes back from a Far East ambassadorship as a woman.

Amanda Bynes






Hairspray actress Amanda Bynes traded flower arranging for football when she played Debutant-turned-college footballer Viola in 2006 film She’s The Man. The film is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, with the characters sharing the same names of those featured in the original play.

Kathleen Turner






Kathleen once described her role as ‘A woman playing a man, playing a woman’. Confusing right? The Golden Globe winner was a guest-star on hit US sitcom Friends, starring as Chandler’s drag Queen dad, Charles Bing.

So, what's next?


Whilst on screen we’ve just had an all-female cast for the upcoming Ghostbusters revival announced (a film with an original all-male cast), on stage the last season at the Donmar Warehouse saw the second instalment of Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy (Henry IV, starring Harriet Walter) – proving that cross-gender acting is as valuable as ever on the modern stage.

Oscar Award-winning actress Emma Thompson last year called for a future of ‘gender-blind’ casting in the acting world, stating: ‘Is the heroic role unisex? Or does it mean there is an area of life which remains unexplored, which contains stories which remain untold? I suspect that’s the case and it will be very interesting as this generation gets into its stride to see what those stories turn out to be’ (Telegraph, 2014).

What's your opinion on cross-gender casting? Tweet us with your thoughts!