Stratford Festival tackles gender by casting women in lead male roles

For the first time ever on the Stratford Festival main stage, two women are playing male lead roles. For Martha Henry, playing Prospero in The Tempest means that instead of her career being over, she's performing the role of a lifetime.

Opening night cancelled due to bomb threat

Martha Henry is one of two women playing male lead roles at the Stratford Festival this year. She will be Prospero in The Tempest — the same play that launched her career at Stratford. (David Hou/Stratford Festival)

For the first time ever on the Stratford Festival's main stage, two women will play male lead roles.

But the opening night performance of The Tempest was cancelled after the festival received a bomb threat.

When the play does open, Martha Henry, arguably one of Canada's most esteemed theatre actors, will be playing Prospero. For Henry, now 80, that means that instead of her career being over, she's now performing the role of a lifetime. 

Henry's first role at Stratford was in 1962 — and it was The Tempest, too. She appeared as Miranda opposite William Hutt in the lead as Prospero. Now she's come full circle, playing Prospero as a woman, and mother, opposite the young Mamie Zwettler as her daughter Miranda.

Henry played Miranda across from William Hutt as Prospero in 1962. This time around, Miranda will be played by Mamie Zwettler. (Peter Smith/Stratford Festival)

Henry says playing a male lead role would "never have entered her head." In fact, her first reaction when artistic director Antoni Cimolino suggested it to her was to say no.

She'd played all the major female roles that Shakespeare had to offer, and none of his major roles were for older women.

"So I kind of thought, well that's it for me," she said. "That's the end of my acting career. And then Antoni came up with this idea."

'If it scares you, then you have to do it:' Martha Henry takes on The Tempest

4 years ago
Duration 2:38
Martha Henry and Stratford Festival head Antoni Cimolino on putting the celebrated, veteran actor onstage as Prospero in The Tempest. 2:38

So why did she relent?

"I thought, now listen," she said. "This scares you, doesn't it? And I had to admit that yes, this scares me quite a lot. And then I thought, 'Well then if it scares you, well then you have to do it.'"

In a year with unprecedented attention being paid to gender parity, thanks partly to the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, one of Canada's largest theatre companies — the very traditional Stratford Festival — is exploring new ways to stay relevant.

With freedom as the theme of the festival this year, The Tempest is not the only major play exploring sexual freedom through casting with gender fluidity. 

Seana McKenna plays the role of Julius Caesar as a man during the 2018 Stratford Festival season. As she says, 'Who doesn't want to be an emperor?' (Clay Stang/The Garden)

The only other Shakespearean production on the Festival Theatre stage will see Seana McKenna cast as Julius Caesar, where, in this case, she'll be playing him as a man. The actors playing Cassius and Mark Antony are also women.

McKenna played Richard III in 2011 on the smaller third stage at Stratford, and also recently played Lear in Toronto — she has been a trailblazer in unlocking male roles for female actors, but this is also her first chance to play a lead male role on Stratford's main stage.

She said it's both a smart way to increase roles for women in a classical repertory theatre company, and an important way to stay relevant.

"Oh I think it's a very lively conversation right now. So many plays are doing this kind of casting and we've just sort of become part of that zeitgeist really," she said.

Seeing women in positions of power on stage, in roles traditionally given to men, also sends an important message, she said.

"We're just blurring the edges of gender. We're saying these are roles and characters first. Maybe gender is secondary," she adds.

Getting audiences to think more openly about gender is a sentiment Cimolino echoes.

"Theatre has to be something that enables us to feel the world differently, see the world differently and maybe the next day, behave a little differently," he said.

Jessica B. Hill and Qasim Khan star as identical twins in Stratford's gender fluid production of The Comedy of Errors. (Clay Stang/ The Garden)

The gender bending goes even further with a studio production of The Comedy of Errors. The show features gender fluidity with all of its casting.

Director Keira Loughran cast her two sets of identical twins as a man and a woman, while a man plays the courtesan role.

She drew inspiration in part from the androgynous stylings of 80s musicians Prince and David Bowie for her costumes, with an eye to keeping things of the moment.

Sébastien Heins as Courtesan in The Comedy of Errors at the Stratford Festival. (Cylla von Tiedemann)

Loughran said it's important to her that a wide variety of people be able to see themselves in Stratford's productions, something she wasn't able to do herself as a young actor at the festival, fifteen seasons ago, although she loved performing there.

"I did struggle to find productions that I saw myself in," she said. "But I think we're still pretty early in figuring out ways to let more diverse people see themselves in production."

She says her goal is to open hearts and minds, "and to challenge people in a way that's open and curious." She knows that in a diverse community, some people will be challenged by her approach. 

"That's how culture, I think, grows," she said. "I think it's more about getting more people excited by that challenge. And I hope we do it in an entertaining way because the show's a lot of fun," she adds.

Cimolino points out that in an era that didn't allow women on stage, Shakespeare was the expert at gender fluidity, casting boys in roles as girls, who then disguised themselves as boys.

"After a while the realities blend and you don't care whether it's left or right or up or down," he said.

"There's a truth that's deeper than gender. A truth that's deeper than identity. There's something quite essential about what it means to be human," he adds.

The season opening production of The Tempest will go ahead at all planned later dates The Comedy of Errors opens June 1 and has just been extended into October, while Julius Caesar opens Aug. 16.


Alice Hopton

National Environment and Climate Change Producer

Alice Hopton is a national Environment and Climate Change producer for CBC News.


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