‘Cancelling Waiting for Godot is scarily close to censorship’

Theatre fan and expert Berber Aardema laments Usva’s decisio to cancel the play ‘Waiting for Godot’ because it start only men. ‘At first glance, it promotes diversity, but it may have far-reaching consequences.’

Fair warning, we’re going to talk about Shakespeare for a bit.

Diversity in theatre is a matter close to my heart. When I travelled to Stratford upon Avon with the English department in 2018 I was lucky enough to see Charlie Josephine as Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet and it blew my mind.

Suddenly, I saw myself on stage and, more than that, saw an interpretation of Mercutio and Romeo & Juliet that touched me more than any lecture on Shakespeare had ever managed. The text remained the same, but its meaning changed completely.

In the years that followed I saw a hilarious gender-swapped version of As You Like It in the Globe theatre, which also featured a deaf actress signing her lines. There is too much to say about the incredible all-black Much Ado About Nothing from 2020 to cover in this opinion piece.

I am passionate enough about gender diversity in theatre that I wrote my master thesis about it. I even directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with GUTS, for transparency) based on the 2020 Bridge theatre version of the play, which swapped the parts of Oberon and Titania.

I am passionate enough about gender diversity in theatre that I wrote my master thesis about it

I also, however, have a great appreciation for the musical Six, a modern retelling of the suffering and the stories of the six wives of Henry VIII, performed by female actresses, and accompanied by an all-female band. In this instance, the gender of the performers adds to the retelling and the reappropriation of the male-dominated story of Henry and ‘his’ wives.

In 1968 The Boys in the Band put a play with a cast of nine homosexual men on stage. Especially in this time, this exclusively male cast was an incredibly important step towards diversity and a wonderful exploration of a male experience.

Recently, the NNT performed Exit MacBeth, about femininity in MacBeth, with an all-female cast. Gender-restrictive casting has, in these cases, an added value, which would be lost if there had been gender-diverse casting.

In my eyes, the ever-increasing cases where blind, diverse, or opposite casting can and has led to beautiful new interpretations and performances of old plays is an overwhelmingly positive development.

I can only applaud the casting of the best actor for a role, regardless of gender, background or other characteristics. But when a production puts on one hell of a performance using an exclusively male or exclusively female cast, I enjoy it just as much.

We can agree that it’s a shame that Samuel Beckett has legally limited the creative interpretation of Waiting for Godot. It would be wonderful if the play could be explored from different angles.

We can agree that it’s a shame that Samuel Beckett has legally limited the creative interpretation of Waiting for Godot

Agreeing that the Nobel Prize-winning play, elected most influential play of the twentieth century, has an inherent worth of its own, despite the restrictions, seems to be a tougher pill to swallow. I deplore that this has led to the cancellation of Waiting for Godot in Groningen.

At the end of the day, what’s most important is theatre makers’ freedom of creative interpretation and that is what worries me in regards to the statements Usva has made regarding the cancellation: ‘You can’t have auditions for men only nor women only.’

At first glance, a statement that advocates for diversity, but a statement which may have far-reaching consequences, as this restriction excludes, to put it mildly, a great number of male-only and female-only plays from performing at the Usva. At its worst, it’s a statement uncomfortably close to censorship.

When you principally prohibit all men-only or women-only plays from your theatre, you might just be as guilty of limiting creative interpretation as the Beckett estate clause.

Berber Aardema is a junior researcher at the UG. The thesis for her master’s degree in English language and culture was about gender diversity in modern performances of Shakespeare. She has also made theater with GUTS at Usva for a long time.