Earlier this month, The Telegraph’s theatre critic, Dominic Cavendish, wrote an article where he argued that woke sensibilities regarding Shakespeare may ultimately result in his getting “cancelled”, and his plays, in their unadulterated form, becoming considered unacceptable.

Below is the response from our Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, who was cited in the article.

Dominic Cavendish gets me wrong. 

He quotes me saying that I don’t care who wrote Shakespeare, whether it was he, she or them, and suggests that this reckless “degendering” demonstrates a lack of respect for our house playwright. 

He misses the point. I was referring to a well-established theory that Shakespeare collaborated with fellow playwrights more frequently than we might have expected, including with Thomas Middleton in Macbeth and Timon of Athens; with George Wilkins in Pericles; and with John Fletcher on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. But whether the plays are the product of sole authorship or collaboration, ultimately it doesn’t matter. We have them. A body of astonishing plays that explore our humanity from 360 degrees, and to which we constantly return to explain ourselves.

But Dominic Cavendish’s grievance is not with Shakespeare’s authorship. It is with the variety of approaches to presenting the plays, some of which he does not care for, and which he regards as incessantly “woke”.

The article was published in the paper with a large photo of the brilliant Rosie Sheehy who plays King John in Eleanor Rhode’s scintillating production in the Swan. Beneath the photo the headline read “problematic Shakespeare” - the immediate implication being that the problem is casting a woman as the callow king. Now I know that is not Dominic Cavendish’s intention, but it is the impression the article presents. 

Two decades ago there was an outcry when David Oyelowo was cast as King Henry VI for the RSC in 2000. Nowadays those who would fulminate against the right of a black actor to play an historical English monarch are few and far between. Perhaps those who are uncomfortable with women playing men will also soon be a thing of the past, but they are taking their time; after all Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon over a hundred years ago.

Regendering is not a policy at the RSC, but it is certainly an opportunity. There are many times when the roles Shakespeare wrote are not specifically defined by their gender characteristics. 

Shakespeare wrote precisely for the actors available in his company, which was entirely male with only three or four boys or young men who could take on the female roles. If he had been writing after the Restoration when women took to the stage, he would undoubtedly have written more parts for them. 

Gregory Doran head and shoulders, wearing a dark blue shirt
Artistic Director Gregory Doran.
Photo by John Bellars © RSC Browse and license our images

I directed the RSC's first 50/50 gender balanced production in October 2018, Troilus and Cressida. But the revelation to me was not the power with which Adjoa Andoh played the Machiavellian Ulysses, or the wit Suzanne Bertish brought to the role of Agamemnon. The fact that the roles were played by women was the least interesting factor. Certainly the opportunity of having these strong experienced women together on the stage was refreshing. 

The really unexpected impact was seeing the prophetess Cassandra played by a deaf actor, Charlotte Arrowsmith. Using her own first language, BSL (British Sign Language), Charlotte drew upon a lifetime of trying to be heard, to be understood, and the frustration of not being listened to, and she used that experience to create a devastating account of the prophetess blessed with the gift of knowing the future, but cursed that no one will believe her. 

Casting David Oyelowo as Henry, or Rosie as John, or Charlotte as Cassandra, is not some fashionable fad or cynical self righteous appropriation of someone else’s culture. It is an open and honest response to these plays and how they speak to us now. 

Dominic Cavendish fears that the woke wolves are beginning to police Shakespeare, and that ultimately they will apply a sort of politically correct censorship which will render the plays unperformable. I can’t agree with that. I think directors, especially some of the freshest and most radical today, many of whom are women, want to reveal what is most urgent, most resonant and sometimes most challenging in his work, and address those issues head on. 

And we have always shaped Shakespeare to our own designs. The simple act of cutting his plays, which is done in virtually every production, reshapes the play, however subtly, for a contemporary audience. But don’t worry, Shakespeare is robust, he can take it, and the next generation will find different things in him to love and to be offended by. 

On the wider point we have currently in the same season with King John two exceptional new plays by women of colour: A Museum in Baghdad by Hannah Khalil and, just opened, The Whip by Juliet Gilkes Romero. All three plays have been directed by women. 

If we want to reflect the society in which we live we need to allow other voices to be heard, other stories to be told. 

If “woke” means socially aware or alert to injustice then Shakespeare, who showed “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”, was certainly woke. He held a mirror up to nature, and whatever gender you are, whatever your racial heritage, your social background, whatever your physical or mental differences, you should be able to look into that mirror and recognise yourself reflected back. That is our purpose and our responsibility.