In Shakespeare's last full play The Tempest, the main protagonist Duke Prospero is banished from his dukedom by his ambitious brother and, with the help of his magical art, finds himself on an island with none but his infant daughter and some spirits for company. At the play's resolution Prospero vows to break his magic staff and bury it. Many read this as Shakespeare's own exit speech, the great conjurer of words downing his pen and retiring.
A few years ago Helen Mirren took part in a film version of The Tempest where she played Prospera, now Duchess, who is accused of witchcraft and banished with her child in order to flee persecution. When I first began to talk to people about my interest in gender-switching in Shakespeare a few mentioned Mirren's role to me but it is only now that I come to investigate it.
A few examples of the film are available on YouTube and Mirren cuts quite a figure with her white-blonde hair, magic staff and clothes which are neither traditionally 'masculine' nor 'feminine' but somewhere in between – a kind of shalwar kameez. The speech where she vows that 'this rough magic I here abjure' is haunting and moving.
Now, I must admit that I am not a huge fan of The Tempest. Whilst it I think it has some of the most wonderful poetry written by Shakespeare ('we are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep...') I find Miranda annoying, her love story with Ferdinand unconvincing, and Prospero cold and moody. However, a re-imagining of the play in the way we see with Mirren's production opens it up and Prospero becoming Prospera, with a slightly different backstory and rationale, suddenly makes the whole thing more relatable, to me at least. It feels as though the play is not at all damaged by this change – as many purists fear when any of gender-bending is made – but is significantly enhanced. Something that is 400 years old occasionally needs a little dusting down and shaking off and Prospera is a great conduit for this.
It would be interesting to see how Mirren would have played Prospero himself and what that would have added to the story. Women playing men as men has been seen many times, notably it seems with Kathryn Hunter as King Lear in 1997 and indeed Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero at The Globe in 2000, but sadly both of these were before my time. I am greatly looking forward to the all-male Twelfth Night this autumn but I also look forward to hearing of some new productions where great actresses take on traditionally male roles, either playing them as men or with slight tweaks in order to play them as women. More than anything it provides a chance for actresses to flex their muscles in new ways, considering the dearth of juicy classical roles available for women, a number which only dwindles as an actress gets older.