Stratford star Seana McKenna is trading in her corsets to play Richard III. Can audiences handle a female portrayal of true evil?

Stratford star Seana McKenna is trading in her corsets to play Richard III. Can audiences handle a female portrayal of true evil?

Tricky Dick

At this point in our cultural history, cross-dressing is subversive only to the most sheltered among us. Drag now is the kind of thing that Grade 9 kids from the suburbs find daring their first time alone downtown. Post–gay pride, post–Internet porn, post–Lady Gaga, it’s hard to imagine who would be shocked by men dressed as women or women dressed as men. This summer, however, there’s a possible exception courtesy of Seana McKenna, who is tackling the title role in Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It’s a performance that asks a very peculiar, unexpected question: are audiences willing to believe a woman portraying a master of political murder?

The original Shakespeare productions were, of course, rife with cross-dressing. In a sense, any modern performance of Shakespeare automatically involves gender reversal, because all the actors at the time the plays were composed were men and boys. Shakespeare himself fooled around with the gender identities of his characters, playing off the transvestite nature of his theatre. In early productions of Twelfth Night (which Stratford is also mounting this summer), a boy playing a woman pretends to be a man who falls in love with a man who thinks she (really he) is a boy. Follow? The gender reversals, and the reversals within those reversals, are part sex farce, part elaborate meta-theatre.

Over the past two decades, Shakespeare has been reinterpreted to match the ideological trends of actors and directors, and so we’ve had the gender-reversed Taming of the Shrew, the race-reversed Othello, all-male, authenticity-driven productions, et cetera, et cetera. In 2008, there was a South Asian Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Luminato festival that was performed in eight languages—a gorgeous if incomprehensible dream. It can easily be argued that a woman playing a man’s part in Shakespeare isn’t all that radical. The Cushman sisters took on Romeo and Juliet in the 19th century, and Sarah Bernhardt was one of the most famous Hamlets of her era. Queen Victoria was on the throne then. In other words, Shakespeare has, at this point in theatrical history, been done every which way and backwards, and yet, outside of all-female productions, no major female actor has ever attempted Richard III.

McKenna, who has been with Stratford for 20 years and is the festival’s biggest female star, has pitched to play Shakespearean male characters before—Jaques in As You Like It and the Fool in King Lear. She’s finally getting her chance with Richard. It’s a bold-verging-on-just-plain-weird choice and one that capitalizes on McKenna’s strengths: her onstage intensity and her facility at creating a bond with theatregoers. The latter is essential when channelling a character adept at making people complicit in his own evil plans. “Villains are always fun,” McKenna told me. “Plus Richard has been called a character actor’s Hamlet.” She believes that by playing Richard she’s addressing an imbalance in the number of challenging Shakespearean roles for older women (much the way Helen Mirren did with her recent performance as Prospero in Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest, although Taymor converted Prospero into Prospera, while McKenna’s Richard will remain, throughout, a he).

The director of Richard III, McKenna’s husband, Miles Potter, has resisted the lure of a “concept production”—aside from having McKenna in the lead, there will be no funny business. There will, however, have to be a willing suspension of disbelief on the audience’s part. For one thing, the nature of Richard’s body—and, as such, his gender—is never forgotten for a moment onstage. His physical deformity is a major subject, for himself and for the other characters, and his condition sets him in a category outside ordinary men, a “misshapen” thing, as he says. His villainy also makes the choice of a female actor to play him fraught. After he seduces Lady Anne, he is so astonished at his own success that he declares: “Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,/Myself to be a marvellous proper man.” Beyond the potentially guffaw-inducing individual lines, McKenna is going to find out whether female actors can portray unequivocal evil in the same way that male actors can, and whether they can be accepted as remorselessly evil by audiences in the same way men are.

Richard’s machinations and his scale of cruelty seem somehow unfeminine to me. McKenna disagrees. “Evil knows no gender,” she says, pointing to women like Karla Homolka. But I’m not sure that Homolka is in the league of Richard III, who massacres children and his own family and betrays his nation and overthrows the peaceful political order more or less to see if he can get away with it. It is a difference of kind as well as of degree. The standard historical comparisons made to Richard III are Hitler, Stalin and Nero. So far we do not have an icon of a woman as a cold-blooded, power-hungry, homicidal maniac. Yes, there has been any number of scheming female monsters. We’ve had Madame Mao, we’ve had Lucrezia Borgia, but there has been no female Pol Pot. I suppose the 21st century will provide ample opportunity to break that particular glass ceiling.

One of McKenna’s greatest performances in recent memory was as Medea—a role she has taken on three times since 1992. The contrast between the two characters couldn’t be starker. Medea kills people out of an overabundance of emotion. Richard kills for sport. Another way of looking at McKenna’s performance as Richard is much simpler: that it’s the coincidence of a great actor with a great part. That’s true. But McKenna’s production also sets out to destroy a strange remnant of male chauvinism, how willing we are to accept a woman’s capacity to comprehend the evil in the hearts of men. I’m not sure whether I want her to succeed or fail. It might be nice to leave one last taboo standing.

Stephen Marche is the author of How Shakespeare Changed Everything.

Richard III
To Sept. 25
Stratford Shakespeare Festival