Katie West rehearses with Maxine Peake as Hamlet (Royal Exchange)
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When Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in Paris in the late 1890s, her performance gave rise to a duel. It’s doubtful whether anyone will feel moved to take up arms over the upcoming Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre but it is sure to make waves – for, in this production, the Danish prince is played by Maxine Peake. And Peake is not the only actress taking on a Shakespeare lead. At the Donmar Warehouse in London this autumn, Harriet Walter plays Henry IV in an all-female staging, following up an all-woman Julius Caesar in 2012.

Shakespeare’s plays are replete with cross-dressing and gender-bending. Two of his loveliest comedies, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, depend on the confusions and revelations that arise from female characters disguising themselves as men. But the biggest roles – Hamlet, Lear, Prospero, Macbeth, Richard III – are all male. Over the years leading female actors have rebelled against convention and taken them on: Vanessa Redgrave played Prospero, Fiona Shaw and Cate Blanchett tackled Richard II and the roll call of those who have played Hamlet includes Asta Nielsen, Sarah Siddons, Angela Winkler and Frances de la Tour.

Kathryn Hunter, who has played both Lear and Richard III, recalls the exhilaration of grappling with the scale of Lear’s journey: “I remember waiting in the wings and feeling like I was in the belly of the whale,” she says.

Fiona Shaw describes it as a chance to measure yourself against some of the greatest poetry in drama. “The pleasure of being allowed to speak these wonderfully empowering speeches is something many female actors never get near,” she says.

But Shaw also clearly recalls being frightened. “I was surrounded by very good male actors who could have played Richard. You have to justify your position by being as good as you could be. Things hit when they have some veracity about them. If the theatre is sharpened by the gender being reversed, then it’s more exciting. If it loses something, then it isn’t.”

Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero, Geraldine Alexander as Ariel in 'The Tempest' (Shakespeare's Globe, 2000)

That, of course, is the risk. All theatre depends on suspension of disbelief and yet cross-gender casting still tends to create a stir. But used well, it can be deeply revealing. A woman interpreting a male character can draw attention to characteristics we associate with male behaviour. When Janet McTeer, playing a macho Petruchio in an all-female Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2003, adopted bullish mannerisms (sitting legs apart, peeing against a column), the very incongruity of it was both funny and shocking.

And when women play men in authority, the piece can become revealing on a wider, political scale. Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar was staged within the framework of a women’s prison with the inmates performing the play. In part, this context rationalised the casting: there were no men present to take the parts. But it also played on the incongruity of female prisoners – who are among the least powerful individuals in society – tackling traditionally male roles of statesman and military tactician.

Lloyd says she wanted to “liberate some of these fantastic actresses from the romantic and domestic sphere in classical work”. But, she adds, it was also “an experiment to see what happens when you play these old, very familiar scores with new instruments and suddenly hear new things”.

One surprising discovery was the many priorities – such as honour, friendship and loyalty – common to both ancient Rome and the corridors of a women’s prison. And it would perhaps be a limited production that presented women in male roles solely to tackle patriarchy. Equally exciting are the unexpected discoveries about social assumptions, the revelations about where gender distinctions blur or break down and the rediscovery of the universality of Shakespeare’s great characters. Watching Harriet Walter’s pale, tense Brutus, there were passages when you forgot she was a woman, or a prisoner, and just saw a superb delivery of a complex, troubled character.

Sarah Bernhardt's Hamlet in the late 1890s

“It’s interesting this time round [rehearsing Henry IV] how little time we spend talking about being men,” says Lloyd. “We’re much more preoccupied with trying to play the characters than trying to be blokes. When it is suddenly thrown into real relief is whenever a female character walks on to the stage.”

And cross-gender casting can dig deeply into the very nature of gender and identity. As a tiny, delicate woman, Kathryn Hunter was initially daunted by the task of playing Lear.

“In my mind Lear was a huge, gigantic figure,” she recalls. “It was only when I saw a very fragile elderly man in the supermarket and I thought, ‘If the crowds now parted and he were wearing a crown, why should he not be Lear?’”

And once Lear lost his authority, Hunter’s diminutive stature came into its own, picking up, as one critic noted, on the “androgyny of old age”. And it’s perhaps when gender reversal points up ambiguities in the part that it becomes most rewarding – and unsettling. It can highlight a character’s unease with the expectations of him as a man. Playing Richard II, a man at odds with his role as king, Fiona Shaw cut an uneasy, androgynous figure.

“All I did was play Richard II,” she recalls. “But to play Richard II in a cast of everybody else being the right gender meant that there was something very peculiar in the middle of the play. But then Richard II was very peculiar in the middle of his world ... It’s like an irritation that makes a pearl.”

So how might this “irritation” work with Hamlet, a character who struggles with many of the expectations of him, as man and as prince? Sarah Frankcom, director of the Royal Exchange Hamlet, has confidence in her lead actor: “There’s a fearlessness in Maxine,” she says. “She’s able to work on a bigger canvas.

Kathryn Hunter as Richard III at Shakespeare's Globe in 2003

“We wanted to explore whether we could make sense of what we saw in the character – a really complex mix between the feminine and the masculine – by putting someone who is female in that role,” she explains. “We live in a world where gender is a spectrum and not something rigidly prescribed – and that felt like an interesting way to address Hamlet.”

Peake’s Hamlet, slim, pale and crop-haired, could be male or female: a changeable, ambiguous figure at the heart of a play shot through with doubts. This Hamlet will be addressed as “he” but will “move beyond gender”. It’s an approach that could intensify the questions about identity, conduct and choice in the play and shift the tone of Hamlet’s great confrontations with Ophelia and Gertrude to something more urgently persuasive about their behaviour. But could the casting also overshadow other aspects of the play?

“When we decided to do it we weren’t sure whether it would work,” Frankcom admits. “It was a set of instincts: Hamlet is mercurial, Hamlet plays a number of roles, Hamlet is probably the most female of all of Shakespeare’s male protagonists. With all plays, it is important to challenge expectations. I think we have to do something we believe in and see what people make of it.”

‘Hamlet’, Royal Exchange, Manchester, from September 11 royalexchange.co.uk; ‘Henry IV’, Donmar Warehouse, London, from October 3, donmarwarehouse.com

Photographs: Jonathan Keenan, Donald Cooper, Getty, Donald Cooper

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