Just over a year ago, director Phyllida Lloyd brought her version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to the Donmar Warehouse in London. To this bloody, macho tale of betrayal and revolution, Lloyd added a twist: it was an exclusively female cast that trod the boards. Speaking on Woman’s Hour in December 2012, Lloyd explained that the women who played Cassius and Brutus in her play were generally confined by the roles written for women; they ‘felt that usually they operate in a very narrow spectrum of what they’re capable of’. Here, playing the men in Julius Caesar, they were ‘able to take up more space and go into other territory’. The opening up some of the bard’s best roles to women is a noble aim, but it clearly isn’t the only aim of casting all women in a play that revolves around men.

julius caeser donmar warehouse

Part of this is an effort to make the familiar – a story that is well-known and that has been staged for generations – unfamiliar. It’s not so much that Shakespeare’s plays need ‘updating’ but that they perhaps need alienating to really drive the message home. We’re used to witnessing pointless violence, and we expect it of Julius Caesar, but we’re not used to seeing women bloodily battle each other, prompting the audience to reconsider the violence and tragedy that underpins the play.

All-female stagings now pepper the performance history of several Shakespeare plays, including a version of Richard III at The Globe in 2003, and Phyllida Lloyd’s Taming of the Shrew in 2003, followed by another all-female version of the same play at The Globe last year. An all-female cast is often felt to heighten the erotic tension of the plays, and in some ways this is replicating an effect that the single-gender stagings of Shakespeare’s own time would surely have had.

Cheek By Jowl Twelth Night

Propeller and London-based Cheek by Jowl are two modern theatre companies experimenting with the revival of the all-male cast. In some ways, an exclusively male cast is traditional rather than radical, although the effects are inevitably subversive. In 1991, Cheek by Jowl staged a feted production of As You Like It, with Adrian Lester as Rosalind. The company is currently touring another all-male Shakespeare staging. This time, it’s a version of Twelfth Night which has received glowing reviews: ‘the company’s boys-only Twelfth Night beautifully echoes that earlier Shakespearean romcom of sexual confusions…’ It’s not only the all-male cast that marks this staging out, though, but also the fact that it’s spoken entirely in Russian, although intended for a non-Russian-speaking audience. Cheek by Jowl explains that the aim of this is to liberate viewers from concentrating on each word; ‘the audience can allow themselves to be engrossed in the world on stage which should not rely on words alone to communicate its meaning.’

It seems that radical retellings render even Shakespeare’s words negotiable. Recent years have seen a proliferation of Shakespearean classics staged in languages unfamiliar to audiences, with versions such as Tim Supple’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream spoken in a dazzling seven different languages, only one of which was English. This version also incorporated song, dance and acrobatics, and was performed by Indian and Sri Lankan actors. The reviewers swooned, with the performance praised for heightening the focus on the language despite the babel-like bilingualism, and for the sheer beauty of the staging lending to its magic and awe. The power of Shakespeare is no easy thing to pin down, these performances tell us – neither the bodies of the actors, the time period, nor the words themselves need to be retained for the plays to keep their potency.

In her review of Lloyd’s version of Julius Caesar, Kate Bassett highlights another radical staging of the play, and one that – in her opinion – is more successful; the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version, set in post-colonial Africa, with an all-black cast. Criticised by some for failing to retain Shakespeare’s ambiguity and avoidance of a simple good/bad binary, the staging made parallels with historic and modern dictators. When Shakespeare’s play was first staged, Elizabeth I was growing elderly, and without an appointed heir to the throne, a frightening power vacuum and possible struggle loomed. While Gregory Doran’s choice of location and time period is starkly different to Shakespeare’s – or Caesar’s – it plays on recognisable contemporary contexts to make the central messages clear.

The same effect was at work in Rupert Goold’s 2007 staging of Macbeth – later adapted for a televised version on the BBC – which saw Patrick Stewart play Macbeth as a Soviet Union military man, and drew parallels between Stalin and Shakespeare’s protagonist. The corrupting influence of power that Macbeth plays out so powerfully is brought closer to us, into a mid-twentieth century setting, but we are also displaced from the familiar tale of Macbeth. The set resembled an underground bunker, complete with dirty tiled walls and an iron-gated lift, used as entrance and exit by the characters, seeming to suggest ‘a mixture of abattoir, kitchen and military hospital’.

midsummer nights dream

It is, perhaps, becoming hard to point to a recent Shakespeare staging that could not be described as ‘radical’. In 2012 I saw a ‘big fat gypsy telling’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, complete with pop music, caravans, and a BMX-riding Puck. It was clever, irreverent, and enjoyable. James McAvoy’s recent outing as Macbeth, meanwhile, was set in a dystopian version of a separatist Scotland, somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

This outpouring of radical retellings perhaps gestures to the ‘universality’ that Shakespeare is endlessly credited for. Shakespeare is communicating something that runs beneath the clothing of gender or skin colour; these are currents of human impulse and behaviour that run through ancient Rome, Elizabethan England, and post-Colonial Africa. It’s possible that these stagings render Shakespeare’s messages more clear, rather than less. And it’s also possible that each of these stagings, and each generation’s impulse to clothe Shakespeare in its own radical regalia, helps us to better understand our own context.