Female Hamlets, East and West

Another repost. I just like this bit that I wrote.

The keys to the kingdom have finally been given to the women. At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Seana McKenna prepares for her turn as the titular role in the Festival's upcoming production of Richard III. At the Royal Shakespeare Company, Kathryn Hunter plays Cleopatra, having just finished King Lear, not as the King this time but as the Fool. Meanwhile, Helen Mirren has wrapped up filming The Tempest, her Prospera hot on the heels of Christopher Plummer's Prospero.

Hardly a new phenomenon (the first two Hamlets on film, Sarah Bernhardt and Asta Nielsen, were both female), Shakespeare's greatest tragic roles have become fame for women as well as men. There's yet to be a mainstream female Romeo outside of opera (Bellini's Il Montecchi e Capuletti comes to mind), but the convention of the 'trousers role' has finally transcended its reputation as a novelty act and has gained prestige. An inversion of the Shakespearean practice of male players, gender-neutral casting does not seem so unnatural to the actresses who benefit from it.

At an hour-long seminar with Ben Carlson during the Festival's summer run of 2010, Seana McKenna listed Richard III as her dream role. She recalled the late Richard Monette offering the role of Hamlet to her and Lucy Peacock, among others.

"You get the feeling of how wonderful it would be to inhabit the mind of a man in Shakespearean canon... because often the women are repositories of their emotion," she said. She went on to say, rather humourously, that 'Evil knows no gender."

This is not strictly a North American experiment either. In Japan, the all-female Takarazuka Revue presents Western-style musicals, plays, and even operas, some of their latest productions including musicalized versions of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. The Revue was established in 1913 and is still extraordinarily popular in Japan, with many female fans who write letters to the men portrayed on stage by women.

An interview from the Revue's glossy monthly publication reveals a similar mindset to Ms. McKenna's idea of inhabiting the male mind, half a world away. Asato Shizuki, known as Zunko to her many fans, is one of the most popular and enduring actresses to come out of the Revue. One playing the role of Touto in the Revue's production of Elisabeth, she says "At that time I am not myself, I'm not a woman. It's Touto's feelings."

In the Takarazuka Revue, playing a man is an established art form. In North America, it's an exciting new experiment. When the concept is stripped of political agendas and gender-bases power struggles, Shakespeare's canon suddenly becomes more than a role-call of wives, queens and mothers for actresses everywhere.

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