British actresses are gobbling up traditionally male Shakespeare parts at a rate that might make us wonder whether Equity might soon have to campaign for Simon Russell Beale to be cast as Lady Macbeth in redress. Still: Big Will was great at many things, but gender balance was not one of them. Harriet Walter, in a new book on playing Shakespeare, Brutus and Other Heroines (Nick Hern Books, £12.99), points out that there are only six meaty roles for older women: Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Volumnia, the Nurse, Queen Margaret and The Winter’s Tale’s Paulina.
The gender-bending climax of her trilogy, after Julius Caesar and Henry IV, is The Tempest at the Donmar’s Kings Cross pop-up until December 17. Walter is one of our great classical female actors: a wiry, intense performer with an instinctive command of verse and a voice than can move between sweet modulation as the whimsical weaver of spells — and cold rage as Prospero, the ultimate helicopter parent.
Walter likes an all-female cast, she tells me, on the principle that shifting the gender of just the lead character while everyone else remains the same shifts the balance of a play in a way that is more tricky for the director. “Once you’ve got your head round the fact that all the parts are female, you don’t have to worry about it again.”
Walter plays a cold and angry rule-giving Prospero, commanding the stage, though the more tender encounters with his daughter are diminished. Even the “dreams are made on” speech is delivered with an edge of flat bitterness — a challenge to the usual conciliatory final tone. Phyllida Lloyd as director (yes, the one who gave us Mamma Mia! on screen) brings nifty cinematographic tricks, making the audience provide the lighting at one point (I won’t spoil how, but it is a magical moment). My main beef is that the text is so savagely cut that the play is hard to follow.
No such liberties are taken with Glenda Jackson’s King Lear at the Old Vic. Lank-haired and dry of voice, the rasping grande dame returns to the canon, aged 80, after a quarter-century away from the stage. Deborah Warner’s production has a spare setting, but a magnificent storm of black plastic sheeting and CGI thunderbolts. Any irreverent thoughts of Queen Lear are quickly forgotten: Jackson’s kingly red garments hang from coathanger shoulders. That famous voice is her main asset in charting the descent from autocratic (“know that we have divided in three our kingdom”) into raving, pleading and grieving, a cracked soul, whispering in the automated rhythms of grief and shock over dead Cordelia.
The award for best supporting fool goes to Rhys Ifans, a hipster jester dressed in a Superman costume with the erratic manner of a street performer with a cannabis habit. Ifans raps and flirts with the audience, throws camp jokes to unseen stagehands, breaks into a perfect Bob Dylan impersonation, complete with mouth organ, and is transformed as the storm descends into a white-faced clown so sinister that he could have walked out of Michael Haneke’s murderfest Funny Games.
Alas, the rest of the cast is uneven. Jane Horrocks as Goneril looks like a dominatrix from an Essex dormitory town, while Celia Imrie as Regan plays the part with brutal efficiency. The mystery of why the two sisters move from bad and greedy to incarnations of wickedness gets little illumination. Morfydd Clark is a highly-talented newcomer, but here, alas, she is so wan a presence that she didn’t seem much of a loss. If the intensity of Jackson and her dominant stage personality drive an impressive return, the rest of the household seem to have suffered some directorial inattention.
The beginning of the unnerving Trump era looks like the time to revisit whether the American dream of peaceful prosperity has turned sour. Many discontents of the post-crash era are captured in Stephen Karam’s The Humans on Broadway. The mortals involved are the Irish-American Blake clan, meeting for a fractious Thanksgiving, as families conveniently do in American drama. But this family, besides the usual testy banter about generation schisms and mutual envies, channels the anxieties that fed the insurgencies of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Erik Blake (Reed Birney) is a blue-collar worker harbouring secret shame. Hardworking lawyer Aimee (Cassie Blake) has acute health problems and faces redundancy. Brigid (Sarah Steele) is a perky twentysomething who started out hoping for a career as a composer, but spends her days waiting tables and settling into a cramped flat in an area her parents remember as a slum. Family one-upmanship is nicely observed. Doughnuts, snipes Deidre at her pious offspring, “are cheaper than blueberries”. “Not cheaper when you consider how much heart disease costs once you’re hospitalised,” comes the reply. The Humans cannily avoids the stage curse of preachiness. “Dontcha think it should cost less to be alive?” sighs Erik, an epigram of the deeper discontents of 2016 in America and beyond.
As Winterval approaches, we should end with a peek at something you might, with ear muffs, consider heading to if you feel like a cross-generational outing but, like your Scroogey columnist, cannot bear another panto. The eternal Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock has migrated from Times Square to the New London Theatre, Drury Lane. This upbeat tale sees Dewey Finn (David Fynn), a gone-to-seed musician, rediscovering his mojo with a class of repressed American private schoolies. Rebellion against stuffy elites might not sound like home territory for Lloyd Webber and librettist Julian Fellowes, a fellow peer, but two Lords-a-rocking make the action romp along, with Dewey locked in combat with the school’s uptight Mozart-loving headmistress Rosalie Mullins (Florence Andrews), intercut by pastiches of pop aristocracy from the Stones to Taylor Swift. The music is rip-roaring, the Kardashian jokes just the right side of rude, and the cast of children and young teens so brimful of ebullience that cynicism is overcome. Somewhere between the sundry hardships of being a mid-life human and an aged Lear on the blasted heath, there is comfort in playing air guitar and rocking out.