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The Tempest’s‘ Prospero Gets Gender Swapped At Globe

New production casts Kate Burton as Prospera


Kate Burton, actress, Prospera in 'The Tempest'

Beth Accomando, KPBS arts and culture reporter


Companion viewing

"Tempest" (1982, directed by Paul Mazursky with John Cassavetes as the Prospero-esque character)

"Prospero's Books" (1991, directed by Peter Greenaway with John Gielgud as Prospero)

"The Tempest" (2010, directed by Julie Taymor with Helen Mirren as Prospera)

Actress Kate Burton is probably best known for her film role in "Big Trouble in Little China" and her TV roles in "Scandal" and "Grey’s Anatomy." Currently she stars as Prospera in the Old Globe Theatre’s gender-swapped production of Shakespeare’s "The Tempest."

The play revolves around Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan who is now something of a sorcerer on an enchanted isle where he lives with his daughter, Miranda. Twelve years earlier, Prospero and Miranda were set adrift in a boat by his brother Antonio, and Alonso, the King of Naples, who had conspired to usurp his throne. Prospero and his daughter eventually ended up on the isle where they are served by the spirit Ariel and the monstrous Caliban, The play opens with a storm that Prospero summons in order to shipwreck his old enemies and seek revenge.

"The Tempest" was Shakespeare's last play and that is one of the reasons Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein wanted to have it staged.

"We can see it as a kind of culmination of an extraordinary career," Edelstein states in the program notes. "All of the ideas and dramaturgical techniques we find in the three dozen plays that come before it somehow resolve themselves here. And yet unlike those other three dozen, this play has no direct literary source that we know of from which Shakespeare borrowed his plot or characterizations. It’s not based on an earlier play, nor novella, nor work of history. It’s entirely original. That’s another thing I love about it: 'The Tempest' is simultaneously a summation of a great canon, and also a new departure. As the curtain was about to fall on his life as a writer, Shakespeare suddenly branched out in a bold new direction that required him to forge a bold new form."

Shakespeare's boldness has inspired the new Globe production directed by Joe Dowling. Dowling has cast Burton as the character of Prospero, who has been transformed into Prospera. Dowling is not the first to gender swap the role. Julie Taymor recently cast Helen Mirren as a Prospera in the 2010 film adaptation of "The Tempest." But the choice definitely brings a fresh perspective to a play that many people may feel familiar with.

"Exactly," Burton said Burton. "There's a whole new world out there and that's what's so terribly exciting for women right now is that you can play this part as a man or you can play this part as a woman. It is equally and differently wonderful."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Jim Cox

Kate Burton plays Prospera in the gender swapped production of "The Tempest" currently on stage at the Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Stage.

And perhaps only fair since in Shakespeare's day all the female parts were played by young boys.

Burton's casting, though, may make play's idea about "The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance" resonate differently coming from a woman rather than the more traditional patriarchal figure that Prospero is usually presented as.

But Dowling's main innovation may be in his production design that gives us a theater in ruins and overrun by the island foliage as our stage. Dowling said that he was reacting to the theatricality inherent in Shakespeare's play.

"It’s about performance all the way through, whether that’s Prospero setting up the spirits to perform, or whether that’s Ariel doing magic for the comic characters," Dowling said. "It’s all about performance, about the value of theatrical magic and how it can transform and change us. It’s also about the power of the writer: Prospero can’t operate without his book. So the idea that the writer, the playwright, can transform words into a magical reality that the audience accepts straightaway because of the power of theatre—that feels to me like it is truly Shakespeare’s farewell to theatre, but also a summing up of what he was able to accomplish through his plays. He was able to take us on that imaginative journey that great writers do, into a world that may feel familiar, but also has elements of fantasy, of imagination, of dreams."

The Old Globe Theatre's production of "The Tempest" runs through July 22 at the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.

Actress Kate Burton is probably best known for her film role in "Big Trouble in Little China" and her TV roles in "Scandal" and "Grey’s Anatomy." Currently she stars as Prospera in the Old Globe Theatre’s gender-swapped production of Shakespeare’s "The Tempest."


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