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Tuesday
Mar082016

Four Women Over Forty Take Men's Roles in the Belfast Tempest

For international women’s day, I thought I would just spend a few minutes writing about why I have cast so many women in the Belfast Tempest, being staged at T13, in the Titanic Quarter, April 20th to 23rd this year.  2016 is the Shakespeare 400th Anniversary, and scholars believe that Shakespeare was born and died on the 23rd of April, the final night of our performance, so this feels like an important landmark moment.

For the Belfast Tempest, I have cast four key men’s parts with women.  What is more, I have cast them with women over 40.  As anyone working in theatre, film or TV will know, meaningful parts for women are rarer than the same for men, and parts for women dry up over 30 years of age.  The parts I have cast with women are: Antonio, Prospero’s scheming sibling, who steals his Dukedom; King Alonso, the ruler of a nearby kingdom who assists Antonio in the usurpation but comes to regret is decision and rejoices when his son Ferdinand proposes marriage to Prospero’s daughter Miranda; Stephano, Alonso’s drunken butler; and Gonzalo, the elderly aide who assists Prospero when his Dukedom is usurped and spend most of the play either trying to cheer everyone up, or worrying about their welfare.

The Belfast Tempest is a professional production (one of seven Creative and Cultural Belfast) that sees a professional cast, from Northern Ireland and beyond, joining 230 people from across the city to create an enormous magical site-specific production down in T13 warehouse. We are playing in the round, and audiences will be invited to take their places on seats decorated as rafts and shipwrecks to see the production.  The betrothal party of Miranda and Ferdinand has been turned into a 25-minute extravaganza presented in their honour by people from across the city.  So, it is obvious right from the start this is the Belfast Tempest, using Shakespeare’s text only, but trimmed, slimmed and adapted to say something about our city.

So, back to how and why I changed those male roles to female.

I wanted something for the talented professional actresses of Belfast to get their teeth into.  But I also wanted the gender flip to make sense in terms of the play.  I believe we women aren’t served with tokenism.  We’re served when an active watchful eye is being kept on equal opportunities for us, and on the service of good art at the same time.

So, the characters in the Belfast Tempest reflect three time frames.  The time of the original Tudor push into the island of Ireland – represented by Ariel and Caliban, both servants of Prospero.  The time of Belfast maritime power and ship-building greatness, just prior to the sinking of the Titanic and the first world war.  This timeframe is represented by Prospero, his daughter Miranda and in my interpretation, his sister Antonia.  Prospero confesses that before his dukedom was taken over by his sister, he didn’t enjoy ruling saying and put his sibling in charge:

I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated to closeness and the bettering of my mind… in my false [sister] awaked an evil nature… [she] did believe she was indeed the duke;

…Me, poor man, my library was dukedom large enough; of temporal royalties [she] thinks me now incapable;

And I thought: ‘can you blame her’?  Seriously though, the rise of the suffragette movement in this period, the fight for changes to the laws to allow women the vote, as well as more autonomy and more legal rights, and the resistance these women faced, give me a very good reason to make Antonio into Antonia, and to cast the talented and redoubtable Jo Donnelly in the part.

Queen Alonsa, Stephana and Gonzala belong to the third time frame represented in the Belfast Tempest: modern times.  These characters are blown onto the island by the magical Tempest that Prospero creates, they are quite literally ‘the blow ins’ new arrivals from outside Northern Ireland, and they represent everything that Prospero hates, everything that he perceives have robbed him of his power.  They are not evil characters, they are fully rounded human beings: generous, selfish, petulant, kind, loyal, disloyal, regal or ludicrous, hopeful or despairing at different times during their journey.

I wanted this cast of characters to look and sound different: by their voices, race, dress and characters to represent all of us who, while born elsewhere, have settled in Belfast.

Nicola Gardner is an experienced and highly professional black actress from Manchester. I have grown up around black women of power and distinction and I immediately envisaged Queen Alonsa as one.  Nicola seemed like perfect casting.  Her drunken butler Stephano became, her drunken PA Stephana, and wonderful comedy character with more than a dash of AbFab about her.  Who better to pull that off then my long-time friend and artistic collaborator Nuala McKeever?  The fact that Nuala’s ear for accents allows her to nail the part of a white character who is not from Northern Ireland was a must.

I can’t reveal who is playing Gonzala because she has not accepted the role yet, but with several powerful women performers over 40 in Terra Nova’s community programme, I am spoilt for choice.

The decision ‘mess with Shakespeare’ as some might say, wasn’t taken lightly, or disrespectfully, but as part of carefully thought out reinterpretation of the play for Northern Ireland in 2016.  As Simon Russell Beale said to the Guardian (15.02.15):

Shakespeare is “big enough” to withstand having scenes cut and lines transposed or obsolete words changed for the sake of clarity. “You can do what you like with it as long as you make coherent, emotional sense.  I see absolutely no problem in throwing Shakespeare around.  The texts will, hopefully, always be there.”

Personally, I like to think that man who created Rosalind, and Cleopatra, and Gertrude and Juliet won’t mind strong women enjoying themselves getting their teeth into his language and his characters in the Belfast Tempest.

The Belfast Tempest is performed April 20th to 23rd at T13.  Tickets are currently on sale at www.crescentarts.org and www.visitbelfast.com – to find out more go to www.terranovaproductions.net/belfast-tempest.

Andrea Montgomery

8th March, 2016