The recently opened production of Hamlet at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester has a bit of a twist… the title role is played by a woman.

Maxine Peake, previously of Shameless fame, has been cast in the role of the Danish prince. Following fast on the heels of the Donmar’s all female cast of Henry IV it seems that this is something we could expect more of in the near future, with reputable critics like The Guardian’s Lynn Gardner applauding the move.

Although playing the opposite sex (‘Travesti’ as it is often called) is not a new thing in theatre or the arts, think of the age old tradition of pantomime dames, the casting of this production of Hamlet has caused a stir within the industry. The famous Danish prince is not often a role which is re-imagined by a woman. Many claim this as a major feminist success, but is this casting more to make a point than anything else? And has feminism gone a little too far this time?

Of course back in Shakespeare’s day no women were allowed on stage, with all the female parts being played by the younger more feminine looking males. Things have changed since then, and women are now considered equal in society and in the theatre which is undoubtedly a good thing. But are some roles too big and should they only be played by the ‘correct’ sex for the part rather than casting the opposite sex or gender reversing the role? Despite Hamlet only having two female characters, Shakespeare still created some fantastic and powerful female characters for women to now play.

Hamlet is considered the ultimate challenge and often the making of an actor. Those privileged to be cast in the role, which has approximately 40% of the 4,042 lines in the play, have a huge task on their hands and are directly compared with many of the great actors have have also played the part. The part was written for a male, Hamlet is a prince. Something doesn’t seem to quite fit right in the context, historical and otherwise, of the play for a female Hamlet.

Feminist theatre is not a new thing, Caryl Churchill and her contemporaries have been championing women in a patriarchal society since the 1960’s. Her works, including the infamous Vinegar Tom, still re-appear on the circuit now and still please avid feminist audiences even if it has been rubbished by plenty of critics. Churchill’s other play Cloud Nine features a female part played by a male actor, this again being ‘Travesti’. But I fail to find many other examples where a typically female part has been re-imagined to be played as a male character.

If Hamlet could be played by a woman could we have a scenario where say Lady Macbeth or Medea are re-imagined as a male character? This, to most, would look a little more unlikely and would probably be more scrupulously questioned.

Female hamlet

Maxine Peake Rehearsing. Rights; The Royal Exchange Theatre

A similar situation has recently arisen with Doctor Who in which talk of a female Doctor refuses to go away and will surely re-emerge when Peter Capaldi announces he is hanging up his sonic screwdriver. If this type of casting is an attempt to push a feminist agenda it would seem that this time it has been taken a little too far to be self-serving and seems opportune more than anything. There is no doubting Hamlet is a great character, and women actresses are as talented and accomplished as the male actors, but other than to prove the point they can play the role what theatrical purpose does this serve?

The critics will be sure to have their say, and their reviews will make for interesting reading about this re-imagining of such an iconic play. However it is actually not the first time a woman has played the role of Hamlet, Sarah Siddons did from 1775-1805 and also Frances de la Tour in the 1970s. Maybe not entirely original, but maybe unheard of enough to seem fresh and novel.

One thing for certain is that the casting of this production of Hamlet is a shrewd idea from the P.R and casting departments and will most likely pay dividends at the box office. The decision has people talking, and word of mouth still remains a very powerful tool within the theatre; especially in an age where we are all connected online. Ultimately, as in all theatre, the audiences will decide whether this production is a success or not.

Tickets for Hamlet at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester are available now at www.royalexchange.co.uk

  • Duncan

    The first recorded instance of a woman playing Hamlet was Charlotte Charke (1713-1760).

    She was followed by:
    Fanny Furnival (1741)
    Sarah Siddons (1775)
    Elizabeth Inchbald (1780)
    Jane Powell (1796)
    Mrs Bartley (1819)
    Charlotte Cushman (1845)
    Fanny Kemble (1848)
    Alice Marriot (1859)
    Felicita von Vestvali (1868)
    Sarah Bernhardt (1899)
    Clare Howard (1899)
    Bertha Kalisch (1901)
    Asta Nielsen (1920)
    Eve Donne (1923)
    Nance O’Neil (1924)
    Zinalda Raikh (1931)
    Eva Le Gallienne (1937)
    Margarita Xirgu (1938)
    Nuria Espert (1960)
    Judith Anderson (1971)
    Fatma Girik (1976)
    Frances de la Tour (1979)
    Diane Venora (1982)
    Madeleine Bellamy (1986)
    Anne Mitchell (1992)
    Tessa Budzisz-Krzyzanowska (1989)
    Olwen Fouere (1993)
    Angela Winkler (1999)
    Alla Demidova (2001)
    Abke Haring (2014)

    Maxine Peake is the latest in a very long line of female Hamlets and is upholding a centuries-old tradition. She’s also said that taking on the role was not meant as a feminist statement – the play’s the thing!