Philip Hensher: Stage leads screen in a gender agenda

Notebook: Dame Helen Mirren as Prospero is a rare example of cinema's use of abstract casting
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The Venice Film Festival came to an end on Saturday night with a new film by Julie Taymor. It's the latest in a long series of film adaptations of The Tempest. Shakespeare's last play has always been a popular choice for cinema adaptations. The two best ones are Derek Jarman's wonderful 1979 shoestring version, and the great 1956 science-fiction version, Forbidden Planet – "Monsters from the Id!" Taymor's new version, however, clearly distinguishes itself from predecessors by a single, bold decision. Prospero, for once, is being played by a woman, Dame Helen Mirren.

Casting against sex is not a new thing, and of course in one sense goes back to Shakespeare's origins. Miranda, like all the parts for women in Shakespeare, was originally played by a boy. (The virtuosity of these boy actors is inconceivable, if you think of how challenging modern-day women actors find Cleopatra.)

The all-male cast in Shakespeare productions has frequently been used since. There was a celebrated all-male As You Like It at the National Theatre in 1967, and an immensely enjoyable Twelfth Night at the Globe in 2002, with Mark Rylance as Olivia. Romeo and Juliet has been rewritten in the setting of an all-boys' boarding school.

The woman actor taking male roles in Shakespeare is a much rarer phenomenon, but not unprecedented. Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet as early as 1899. The Globe put on an all-female Taming of the Shrew, with evidently subversive intent towards this most problematic of plays. Interestingly, there is a long tradition of women playing Ariel in The Tempest, where the sex of the character has, probably since the Restoration, been seen as ambiguous. And Vanessa Redgrave pre-empted Mirren by playing Prospero at the Globe in 2000.

It's striking, however, that most of these counter-conventional pieces of casting have occurred in the theatre. Theatre generally has been much bolder than cinema in casting against convention, and even against naturalistic plausibility. The interesting comparison here is with what has come to be termed "colour-blind" casting. Since Hugh Quarshie played Hotspur at the RSC in 1983 at least, we have become used to seeing black actors playing traditionally white roles. I remember being asked to comment on a production of The Vortex in which Chiwetel Ejiofor starred with a white actress playing his mother. I think we hardly notice that any more, and it's good that an actor of Mr Ejiofor's immense talents, for instance, is not limited to a tiny handful of classical roles.

But cinema and television has been much slower to follow. Rare exceptions include Denzel Washington in the 1993 Much Ado about Nothing, and the BBC's medieval tea-time drama Merlin. It seems as if the greater naturalism of filmed media resists non-literal casting. I would love to see the routine casting of women in traditionally male roles, and black actors in traditionally white ones. At the very least, it would be very interesting. I love the idea of Dame Helen's Prospero. I look forward to Helena Bonham Carter's Hercule Poirot.

Why shouldn't Tony be allowed a party?

First Tony Blair cancelled his book-signing session at Waterstone's in Piccadilly. Then the party to launch his autobiography at Tate Modern had

the plug pulled. The reason given was a good one; that the extent of the protest would mean an unreasonable commitment of police time. Mr Blair thought that it was wrong to ask for the police to use their budget to police a major protest against a private event. It was honourable of him to say so, and the right decision in the circumstances.

But it seems a great shame that the publishers of a politician's memoirs, having brought them out to a lot of interest and enormous sales, should not be able to mark the publication with a launch party. One reads books every day of the week; one disagrees, sometimes very strongly, with what some of them have to say. To mount protests on such a scale that the normal accoutrements of publication have to be abandoned, however, is deplorable. And it seems to be getting worse. Lady Thatcher was loathed by a vocal segment of society, but her memoirs had a proper degree of publicity, with the game author undertaking a publicity tour. Would that happen now?

I am not myself a great fan of Tony Blair, but it seems to me that what many protesters were objecting to was not that he was holding a launch party, but that the book should have been written at all, or perhaps that Mr Blair proposes to go on living. He should be allowed to have his say,

and indeed his launch party, and we are allowed to disagree with him.

That's no apology

Speaking on the BBC's Moneybox programme about the PAYE shortfalls which have affected millions, the permanent secretary of HMRC, Dave Hartnett, said: "I'm not sure I see a need to apologise." He went on to suggest that these demands were perfectly normal. A few hours later, Mr Hartnett was suddenly sure that he did see a need to apologise. "We do not underestimate the distress caused to taxpayers and once again I apologise."

I wonder what happened in between, though I don't wonder for long. Clearly, a minister gave Mr Hartnett a telephone call, and suggested in measured tones that he should perhaps have another go at saying what he really meant to say in the first place. The situation will have been very familiar to any parent. "Now, George, what do you say to Lucinda for pushing her face into the dog shit?" "Not sorry." "Now, George, is that a good thing to say, or shall we go straight home instead of going to McDonald's?" "I'm very sorry, Lucinda, and I won't do it again."

But if the apology comes in a directive from ministers, as it clearly did, why was Mr Hartnett appearing on Moneybox rather than the relevant government minister, David Gauke? In former days, ministers had accountability to the public and to Parliament. Indeed, within living memory, ministers resigned over departmental cock-ups of which everyone accepted they knew nothing at all. The distinction between policy responsibilities and operational responsibilities is not a very welcome one. Though nobody thinks that Mr Gauke is personally responsible for this cock-up and ought to resign, he is, surely, the person who ought to be representing, and apologising for, his department on the radio, just as he does in Parliament.