Forget pantomime, playing cross-gender is a very subtle art. We spoke to former Royal Shakespeare Company actor Kathryn Hunter and her co-star in The Bee, Hideki Noda, about playing King Lear as a woman, the power of observation and why it all starts with the spine…
Kathryn Hunter: When I first played a man I would think of a body. It’s quite like researching any character: you think, what is the body shape? What’s the walk like? What’s the spine like? What’s the dynamic? Then, later, there’s the question of what it is to be male.
Think about how it feels to be in that body. It’s a cliché, but women tilt their heads more, perhaps men are more on axis, men have a greater forward momentum. Then you have to think about the way that your character thinks; what do they want and what is the situation?
King Lear is such a legendary part, with the reputation of someone huge and powerful. When I played it, at first I thought, “Oh my god, I’m so short.” Then I saw a very frail old man in a supermarket and I thought, if everybody started bowing to him, and treating him like a king, then why shouldn’t he be a king?
The point is that the emotion and the drive are huge, not necessarily the height. When we got to Japan, where people are smaller and they are more accustomed to changing gender, we could just get on with it. In England it was treated more as trespassing. There was this feeling that as a woman, who hasn’t done the Scottish Play, who hasn’t done all these other things, I wasn’t really allowed to play King Lear.
When it comes to the voice, it’s not about just speaking as low as possible. There are technical ways of sitting in the lower register. Also, there are many women, like Ogoro’s wife in this play, who have quite growly, gritty voices.
Hideki Noda: Acting a different gender is like approaching any kind of part. It is about observation. Half of the world is made up of women, so you will be observing the opposite gender all the time.
When I play a female role, I also become very conscious of my spine, which is connected to how you hold your shoulders. As a man, you will have broader shoulders than a woman, so you may want to hold them differently, at a tilt or not standing face-on. I also think about the walk.
Kathryn Hunter: That’s right, it’s all about observing. It’s not like you can have this ABC plan – you have to keep observing everyday.
Hideki Noda: You can’t rely on costume to get you into character. In rehearsal I don’t wear women’s clothes. If you rely on costumes, or wigs or shoes, then you’re less conscious of the body. In the final stage, of course, a wig and costume will help, but you have to concentrate on your body first. In Japan, in the practice of Kabuki, there are no female actors, so those people have specific training in traditional Japanese dance, which teaches you all about movement and that can apply to playing a different gender.
I think that some male actors try to exaggerate the femininity of a character too much. In the end, the trick to acting is to find something inside. You have everything inside of you, so you can become any character, from a different gender to a different species.
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