VENICE (Reuters) - Helen Mirren stars in a new movie version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” but it comes with a twist as the Oscar-winning British actress takes on the male role of Prospero and becomes Prospera instead.
The reinterpretation of the play, which celebrates its 400th anniversary this year, was devised by director Julie Taymor, who shot it on the islands of Hawaii.
Some rewriting was necessary to make the character of Prospera work, particularly her back story according to which she becomes the widow and heir to the deceased Duke of Milan.
Like Prospero, she studied the alchemical arts, although as a woman she was forced to do so in secret. When she inherits the dukedom, her treacherous brother Antonio forces her aside by accusing her of witchcraft.
For Mirren, the gender switch changes the relationship between Prospero/Prospera and daughter Miranda, and adds a political dimension to the play with her banishment the direct result of being a woman in a male-dominated court.
“Women have been punished for being in power, for being powerful for many centuries and I thought that was the remarkable thing about making Prospero into Prospera,” Mirren told reporters in Venice, where The Tempest closes the film festival on Saturday.
“You can bring in that history of female struggle, and certainly in Shakespeare’s day and for many centuries before and after women of knowledge were punished for that knowledge,” the 65-year-old added.
“We can see now in the extreme fundamentalist states, whatever religion they are, that they want to exclude women from education ... because an educated woman is a dangerous thing.”
For Taymor, the fact that The Tempest has been adapted for the big screen before, notably by Derek Jarman in 1979, did not deter her from trying.
“His plays are so rich that they allow for each director and the actors involved to personally interpret them for all times, and it didn’t feel like it had been done,” she said.
“There is always room for another Tempest, especially because Shakespeare’s last play is his most visual.”
Mirren said playing a Shakespearean role on screen demanded even greater command of the language than on stage.
“I knew that if I wasn’t utterly prepared, knowing it inside out, backwards, forwards, every which way, I was lost, because without that you can’t think as you act,” she said.
“You’re just thinking about what the next line is and that had to be coming automatically, especially on film because the great advantage of film ... is that viewers can see the expression on your face and that really helps them understand what you’re saying.
“That was incredibly important — that my face didn’t express panic over not remembering my lines. So I learned it and it was the first time in my life I’ve ever done that. I didn’t think I was capable of it, but I did.”
The star-studded cast includes Alfred Molina as Stephano, Russell Brand as Trinculo, Djimon Hounsou as Caliban, David Strathairn as Alonso and Ben Whishaw as Ariel.