When Tamsin Greig takes the role of Malvolia in our upcoming production of Twelfth Night, she joins a proud tradition of gender swapping in Shakespeare productions. In a way, this stretches right back to the original productions, when all parts were played by men (except, of course, Viola de Lesseps, also known as Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love).
In the last 400 years, there have been many examples of women playing Shakespeare characters originally written as men. Here are five of our favourites.
‘Frailty, thy name is woman’, says the Prince of Denmark about his mother’s marriage to his uncle Claudius, lines that have been spoken by a whole host of female actors. The earliest known stage example is Charlotte Charke, who lived from 1713 to 1760, and also tried her hand as a pastry chef, sausage maker, landlord and writer. Sarah Bernhardt, who also played the role on stage, was the first woman to play Hamlet on screen, in a two-minute film from 1900, showing the duel to the death against Laertes. Recently, Maxine Peake’s turn in the Royal Exchange’s 2014 production brought her critical acclaim.
How to make Romeo and Juliet’s love even more star-crossed? Make them sisters.
That’s exactly what happened in a 19th-century production, when Charlotte and Susan Cushman took on the two title roles. Charlotte, who played Romeo, had a history of playing male Shakespeare roles, including Iago and Hamlet. For the latter, publicity described her as ‘a lady universally acknowledged as the greatest living tragic actress’.
Ariel, the island spirit from The Tempest, is one of Shakespeare’s most ambiguous characters when it comes to gender, and has been played numerous times by both men and women. Technically, we know that Ariel is male – Shakespeare uses male pronouns twice, once in stage directions and once in a speech by Prospero – but the role was played by women for all of the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1930, Leslie French became the first man in centuries to play Ariel in a notable production; since then, the role has been played by actors of all genders.
The nature of this list reflects the fact that, in theatre, gender swapping is most common in Shakespeare. The other tradition is pantomime, into which Peter Pan productions often fit. However, the role of Peter has been played by a woman in dramatic productions, too – firstly by Nina Boucicault in 1904. In our current production of Peter Pan, a male actor [Paul Hilton] takes the role, but the traditionally male part of Captain Hook is played by Anna Francolini.
It would be hard to write a list of the best gender swaps without mentioning Glenda Jackson as King Lear. The double Academy Award-winning actor returned to the stage after a 25-year absence to rave reviews, described as ‘tremendous’ by both the Guardian’s Michael Billington and the Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish.
Twelfth Night opens in the Olivier Theatre from 15 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Twelfth Night page.