The Sunday Magazine

Gender-bending Shakespeare: Seana McKenna and Martha Henry on playing Julius Caesar and Prospero

Several women are assuming traditional male lead roles at Stratford this year. Seana McKenna and Martha Henry explore what female actors bring to male characters.
This year at Stratford, two of Canada's theatre greats will be playing 'trouser roles.' Martha Henry will play Prospero and Seana McKenna will play Julius Caesar. (Stratford Festival)

There's nothing new in "gender blurring" in Shakespearean theatre. It's been going on for more than 400 years. Audiences in the 1600s expected to see young men play all of the female parts because women were forbidden to take the stage. And within the Bard's plays themselves, women often hide in plain sight, disguised in men's clothing. 

This year at Stratford, two of Canada's theatre greats will be playing "trouser roles." Seana McKenna will play Julius Caesar and Martha Henry will play Prospero.

Even in the 21st century, it has unsettled some patrons.

Speaking to The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright, Martha Henry says that Stratford has had complaints about the cross-gender casting.

"They've had people who were really incensed about this. Some even said they weren't going to come."

Martha's response? "Tell them that if they don't come, they can't complain, because they will have nothing on which to stand. Come first, and see what you think."

It's all about the part, not the person, says Seana McKenna.

"I think we carry both male and female in us, especially now. There's more gender fluidity in our society these days. I think it's what you bring as a human being and as an actor to the part. I've always felt that there was room for both genders in these parts."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.