‘It’s really important’: casting women in roles traditionally played by men

Taking on Homer’s Odyssey in its first translation by a woman is all about facing up to uncomfortable truths, says actor Maxine Peake

Maxine Peake and I are discussing uncomfortable truths. "As a human race, we're pretty despicable," says the acclaimed actor, famous for roles from TV's Shameless and Silk to playing the lead in Hamlet on stage. "We're wonderful as well. Nobody's perfect, and we must never turn our backs on that," she continues, with an optimism that seems never far from the surface.

With misleadingly fragile and delicate features, and large expressive blue-grey eyes, Peake is no stranger to dark characters. She took on the role of Moors murderer Myra Hindley in the miniseries See No Evil. "There are stories that need to be told," she said in an interview at the time.

We're speaking ahead of Peake's next role, reading episodes from Homer's Odyssey on the beaches of the northwest of Ireland, from Donegal to Derry. The event is part of the Lughnasa FrielFest, which for the past three years has been elided with the Happy Days Beckett festival, to create a cross-Border celebration of two of Ireland's most acclaimed writers.

The readings, from both Iliad and Odyssey, which were inaugurated at last year's festival, are set to become an annual event, but this year there's a difference. Peake, together with a stellar line up of actors, including Imogen Stubbs, Frances Barber and Jaye Griffiths, are reading from Emily Wilson's new translation of the Odyssey, the first by a woman.


Why should this matter? "It's really, really important," says Peake, embracing not only the translation, but also the idea of casting women in roles traditionally played by men. To her own Hamlet, she adds Ruth Negga's forthcoming run in the role, at the Gate's production for the Dublin Theatre Festival. "It's about empowerment. I think: hang on a minute, this is a bloke that wrote plays that were all performed by men, so this is a female perspective. When I played female parts in Shakespeare," she continues, "they're not the easiest parts to play. The emotional journeys are quite problematic. Take Ophelia, she starts off fine, then she goes mad and she dies. She's potentially a fabulous character, but then you're just going nought to 60, hurtling to her demise. I'm being facetious," she adds, "but why can't we tell these stories? Why has it taken so long?"

Instead of women taking on men’s roles, what about writing entirely new stories? “I think that’s nonsense,” says Peake briskly, but with a disarming friendliness that takes the sting out of her dismissal. “Just stop doing Shakespeare, if that’s how you feel, but why not give it a go, all that beautiful language?” Shakespeare, she says, needs to be unpacked. And she’s right. After all, these are the foundation stories of a great deal of western culture, as are the tales of Homer, some two and a half thousand years previously. “It has to stay relevant,” says Peake. “Find different ways to tell the stories. No stories are new, every story has been told, there’s just different ways of telling it.”

There is a surprising amount of latitude in that telling, as Wilson's new Odyssey translation demonstrates, and as Brian Friel's own play, Translations, so brilliantly explored. Friel is said to have been fascinated by Homer, reading either the Iliad or Odyssey once a year. "They were touchstones for him," says Festival co-curator Liam Browne. "A number of the themes interested him very much: what is home, travelling, trying to get somewhere, leaving, looking back…"

We experience our sense of history, and ourselves through story, and as Wilson's translation reveals, and Friel's Translations explores, the person doing the telling, owning the voice, has extraordinary power. Take the opening lines of the Odyssey as translated by Stephen Mitchell: "Sing to me, Muse, of that endlessly cunning man". Wilson's version opens with the line: "Tell me the story of a complicated man", a subtle difference that is equally faithful to the enigmatic original Ancient Greek. Later in the epic poem, Wilson corrects what she perceives as a clear mistranslation, and the "maidservants" become "slaves" once more. Words and emphasis can alter everything.

On a beach

A hugely talented and versatile actress, Peake knows this more than most, and she also relishes the opportunity to step out of the traditional theatre set up, as offered by the beach-locations of the FrielFest's Odyssey. "If I'm in an old established theatre, you can feel the history, the ghosts, the energy of the performances, the actors who have been there before you, but this – on a beach, with the sea there before you, you can imagine, close your eyes, you feel you could be in that environment," she pauses briefly, gathering the idea. "Odysseus just landed on the beach with his men… In my imagination, I'm tangling with the elements. It sounds really romantic, this vision I've got in my head."

The Odyssey chapters will be staged within marquees on the beaches, and each beach has been chosen with a particular section of the text in mind, so Magilligan Strand in Co Derry, site of a Martello tower, is the site of Imogen Stubbs reading the passage dealing with Odysseus's bloody battle with his wife's suitors, once he has finally made it home. It is also home to the old fortress prison of Magilligan, which, during the Troubles, housed terrorists, and is now a favourite caravanning spot. Greek music will welcome audiences to each event.

Peake is an engaging and passionate speaker, her words, while incredibly intelligent and well thought out, run at breakneck speed in her soft north of England burr, and are peppered with internal questions that she answers herself. "Is there a race that can talk more than Northerners? That's Irish people. There's a nice kinship there. I'm like everyone else who slightly falls in love with Ireland," she continues. "Its history, culture. I did a film about five years ago, Run & Jump [2013], in Co Wicklow, and then in Dingle. Oh my goodness, it's breath-taking, isn't it?" Belfast, she adds, feels very similar to the north of England. "It felt like home."

Given those similarities, and that love for this country’s culture, what does she make of the current political climate? The daughter of a lorry driver and care worker, she has clear socialist leanings, and a clear-eyed view of the problems before us. And so we’re back to that idea of ugly truths. “We must always face it full frontal, or we’ll never change. It’s a difficult time,” she agrees. “And not just in Britain, in Ireland, worldwide. It’s history repeating itself.”

"At least Thatcher knew she was an evil witch," she said in an interview (2016 in the Guardian). "The government now is much smoother…"

The key, she says, lies in remembering the past, facing up to it, wrongs, warts and all. “It’s not about becoming so entrenched that you’re not moving forward, respecting other people’s views, but owning it, lightly.” But what if that makes you furiously angry, it can be hard, these days, not to spend your whole time enraged at the news. “It’s using that energy positively,” says Peake. “Is there a terrible energy? It’s how you recycle it. Anger is a positive energy,” she concludes. “It’s really important to speak out. And our past makes us who we are, doesn’t it?”

Festival highlights

Combining the Lughnasa FrielFest (Derry and Donegal), and the Happy Days International Beckett Festival (Enniskillen) into one big cross-Border jamboree has resulted in an intriguing programme celebrating two of Ireland’s most extraordinary writers. As festival co-curators Seán Doran and Liam Browne point out in their programme introduction, this is set to be the final festival before Brexit, adding another frisson to proceedings. Who knows what will happen to Border happenings after that?

Highlights include:

Niall Cusack reads selected episodes from the Iliad on The Walls of Derry. The Apprentice Boys will provide another layer to Homer's story of the Siege of Troy with their annual march on Saturday, August 11th that commemorates the Siege of Derry, adding their own soundscape to the event. August 10th, 11th

Truly making the most of the region's spectacular scenery, Purgatorio: Walking for Waiting for Godot is a rehearsed reading of Beckett's famous play at the Marble Arch Caves Unesco Global Geo-park. August 18th, 19th, walk at 8am.

The festival also brings Brian Friel out and about, with a promenade reading of Faith Healer on August 17th-19th. Tickets include a bus from location to location (a village hall, the ballroom of the Highlands Hotel in Glenties), plus an interval barbecue on Portnoo Pier, the setting for Friel's Wonderful Tennessee.

Bringing a Russian flavour to the festival, the Russian song recital at Derry’s St Columba’s church should be gorgeous. Featuring baritone Andrei Bondarenko with Gary Matthewman on piano. August 19th.

Full programme, information and tickets at artsoverborders.com, August 1st-19th