Shakespeare's Sisters - Doing It for Themselves

How many great Shakespeare films directed by women can you name? 

When we started preparing for the Shakespeare 400 celebrations we compiled a long, international and diverse list of Shakespeare film adaptations shot specifically for the cinema (that is, not including filmed stage productions). Once we got through the holy trinity of Welles-Kurosawa-Branagh, followed by the usual suspects Luhrmann, Greenaway, Olivier, Van Sant, Kurzel, one alarming trend became apparent: all bar two directors on the list were men. The exceptions were Julie Taymor (twice, with her glorious Titus and The Tempest  - and she could have had a third entry with her cinematically hybrid stage show/film of A Midsummer Night's Dream starring Kathryn Hunter, which screened at Curzon Soho last summer), and Penny Woolcock (whose great project Macbeth on the Estate was in fact made for TV in 1997).

Helen Mirren as 'Prospera' in The Tempest, directed by Julie Taymor (2010). Photo by Melinda Sue.

On stage (or rather, backstage), the numbers and profile of female directors are growing. Here practitioners of note include regularly working directors like Deborah Warner, Janet Suzman, Phyllida Lloyd, Josie Rourke and Blanche McIntyre - who have all directed Shakespeare productions in the West End and the National Theatre, Young Vic and Donmar Warehouse. Emma Rice is now the new Artistic Director of Shakespeare's Globe and Erica Whyman has joined Gregory Doran as the Deputy Artistic Director of the RSC. Is this unbalanced ratio of male : female Shakespeare directors something specific to film?  

To be fair(er) to film, cinema has a long history of teaming up with theatre to give space to great performances by female actors in Shakespeare roles, often creating the opportunity for them to tackle traditionally male roles, possibly in the spirit of gender fluidity that Shakespeare's plays so often rely on and champion. One of the finest interpretations of Hamlet we can recall can be seen in Svend Gade's terrific 1921 silent film starring the great camera acting pioneer Asta Nielsen. And just last year an excellent stage production of Hamlet starring Maxine Peake in the leading role was broadcast live to cinemas worldwide. After all, Shakespeare's women were written for male actors, so it only seems fair to subvert the order of things and watch what happens - with illuminating results.

Asta Nielsen as Hamlet

Maxine Peake as Hamlet

But a recent - rather shocking - new report from Directors UK (the professional association of directors in the UK) revealed that "the figures for women film directors have not improved in ten years, with women making up just 13.6% of working film directors" (read more). It is worth noting that in film this level of gender inequality continues despite the proven commercial success of many films written and directed by women. But there are positive signs: funders and production companies, as well as film institutes across the world (Sweden being the only country that has so far achieved a 50-50 balance of male and female film industry practitioners) are trying to address the underrepresentation of women in lead creative roles.  

As an example of this movement, this spring Film London and British Council partnered on "Shakespeare’s Sister" – an initiative to give voice to female creatives as part of this year’s programme of events to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Following an open bid for female filmmakers to submit their treatment for two short films inspired by Shakespeare, Marina and Adrienne (dir. Lucy Campbell) and WYRDOES (dir. Nat Luurtsema) were commissioned for production.

Marina  and Adrienne


The two films were chosen following an intensive selection process which saw some 265 applications. They both received £15,000 in production funding, along with expert mentoring from Film4 and membership to Women in Film & TV. The films will also tour internationally as part of the British Council’s Shakespeare Lives strand, thus giving some of the country’s most exciting emerging female filmmaking talent a global platform for their work.

An upcoming screening at Curzon Soho will be your chance to see them in London. This special event combines the first public screening of the films plus a panel discussion with the directors, a leading Shakespeare scholar and members of Bechdel Test Fest on the relationship between Shakespeare, women and cinema.

Is Shakespeare a boys’ club? Was Shakespeare a feminist? Why are there so few Shakespeare films directed by women? What do Shakespeare’s women look like today? Why should women read Shakespeare in the age of post-feminism? These are a few of the burning questions our panel will address.

Join us and see how Shakespeare's sisters are doing it for themselves.


Written/directed by Lucy Campbell; produced by Loran Dunn.

Set at sea, runaway lovers find themselves in the eye of a storm, where childbirth, death and superstition are challenged by the power of love. Marina and Adrienne is inspired by Pericles, Prince of Tyre.


Written/directed by Nat Luurtsema and produced by Jennifer Eriksson and Iona Westlake.

Three sisters – Elsab, Magrit and Merope – battle through poverty and rumours that they’re witches just because they’re a little ‘wyrd'. Through accidental tragedy, murder and war, the downtrodden Wyrdoes finally fight back! WYRDOES is a comedy inspired by Macbeth.

The screening is followed by a 45-minutes panel discussion chaired by Ian Haydn Smith. Read more about our panel speakers below.


Lucy Campbell (director of Marina and Adrienne)

Lucy Campbell is an award-winning director (Royal Television Society Best Undergraduate Fiction 2011 for The Surface of Impenetrable Things; Finalist-Virgin Media Shorts 2011 for The Friend Catcher). She has credits in festivals in the UK and internationally. Her short film The Pig Child (2014, funded by Creative England/BFI), a contemporary take on Frankenstein, premiered at Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival (2014, Bristol) and won Best Actress at Underwire Festival (London, November 2014).

Her short film Sliding, funded by Creative England for the ‘Alumni’ scheme, about a rebellious young cello student who stalks a phone sex client for a prank is currently in post-production. 

With a first degree in English Literature, she then trained as a medical doctor, working in the NHS as a GP in Central Manchester. In 2005 she went to art school, working initially in artists’ film, and subsequently in narrative short form, winning awards and showing work internationally. She is currently developing a feature length contemporary interpretation of the Frankenstein story, looking at stem cells and the ability to regenerate humans.

Nat Luurtsema (director of WYRDOES)

Nat Luurtsema is a BAFTA-nominated screenwriter, stand-up comedian, BAFTA Rocliffe alumnus, actor, author and director.

She was a stand-up comedian for six years and wrote for Mock The Week, Stand Up For The Week and Fake Reaction.

Her sketch group Jigsaw has two BBC Radio 4 series and were regulars on BBC3’s Live At The Electric. She  wrote Island Queen, Three  Women Wait For Death and recently wrote and  directed WYRDOES.

Nat’s  first book, Cuckoo In The Nest, was  published in 2010. Her second book Girl Out Of Water will be published in four languages this June, with the sequel to follow in 2017.

Nat has just adapted Helen Cross’novel, Split Milk Black Coffee, into a screenplay and is working on several feature scripts. She  plays  Tallulah  Bankhead  in Florence  Foster  Jenkins,  directed  by  Stephen Frears.


Beth Webb (Bechdel Test Fest)

Beth is a film journalist and programmer based in East London. Having written for The Telegraph, Dazed and Confused and Broadly, she currently works for Film4. After helping out at numerous Bechdel Test Fest events, she hosted her first screening (the wickedly funny Drop Dead Gorgeous) in April and hopes to continue working with this positive, pro-active group of tireless women to help promote the achievements of the female film industry.

Beth tweets at @BethKWebb


Bechdel Test Fest is an ongoing celebration of positive female representation in film. It started as a year-long project to mark the Bechdel Test’s 30th anniversary in 2015, and it is now an ongoing celebration of films that succeed in representing women in a positive and progressive light. They host events at various venues in London and nationwide.

‘The Bechdel Test’ was inspired by cartoonist Alison Bechdel‘s 1985 tongue-in-cheek comic strip ‘The Rule’ which became a basic measure to see if women are fairly represented in a film.

For a film to pass The Bechdel Test, the movie must simply have the following:

1: It must have at least two female characters
2: They must both have names
3: They must talk to each other about something other than a man

Simple, right? You'd think so... Read more about Bechdel Test Fest here.

Prof. Carol Rutter (University of Warwick)

Professor Carol Chillington Rutter is Professor and Director of the CAPITAL Centre, and teaches on the English and Comparative Literary Studies programme at the University of Warwick. Born and raised in southern California, in 2005 she became the first woman in the history of Warwick’s English Department to be promoted to a personal chair as Professor of Shakespeare and Performance Studies. From 2006-2011 she was Director of the CAPITAL Centre (Creativity and Performance in Teaching and Learning), a HEFCE-funded Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning that, in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company, developed the pioneering programme 'Shakespeare Without Chairs', which uses rehearsal techniques to conduct 'close reading as three-dimensional literary criticism'. In 2007 she was awarded a WATE (Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence) and in 2011, appointed a National Teaching Fellow.

Carol Rutter's major research interests lie in Shakespeare performance studies. She writes about Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) both in early modern and in subsequent performance. Her numerous publications include: Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare’s Women Today (1988); Enter The Body: Women and Representation on Shakespeare's Stage (2001); Shakespeare and Child's Play: Performing Lost Boys on Stage and Screen (2007).


  • Asta Nielsen, Hamlet in Hamlet (dir. Svend Gade, 1921) 
  • Emma Thompson, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 1993)
  • Helen Mirren, Prospera in The Tempest (dir. Julie Taymor, 2010)
  • Julia Stiles, Kat Stratford in 10 Things I Hate About You (an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, dir. Gil Junger, 1999)
  • Jessica Lange, Tamora in Titus (dir. Julie Taymor, 1999)
  • Jeanne Moreau, Doll Tearsheet in Chimes at Midnight (a version of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, dir. Orson Welles, 1965)
  • Isuzu Yamada, Lady Asaji Washizu (Lady Macbeth) in Throne of Blood (a version of Macbeth, dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
  • Anastasiya Vertinskaya, Ophelia in Hamlet (dir. Grigori Kozintsev, 1964)
  • Maggie Smith, Duchess of York in Richard III (dir. Richard Loncraine, 1995) 
  • Kareena Kapoor, Dolly Mishra (Desdemona) in Omkara (an adaptation of Othello, dir Vishal Bhardwaj, 2006)


Macbeth on the Estate (dir. Penny Woolcock, 1997)

Titus (dir. Julie Taymor, 1999)

The Tempest (dir. Julie Taymor, 2010)


Know any more great Shakespeare films by women that we should watch? Please let us know! Tweet @CurzonCinemas 

With thanks to  Film London , The British Council, Ian Haydn Smith and Corrina Antrobus (Bechdel Test Fest).

With thanks to Film London, The British Council, Ian Haydn Smith and Corrina Antrobus (Bechdel Test Fest).