Saturday, October 20, 2007

In black and white 2:

2. Is this a question of Politics or Theatre?

I left off last time with a question – could Iago be played by a black actor?

It is a question with its origins in a debate that took place way back in the 70s when they were casting the first filmed version of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ – Norman Jewison the director, had cast a white Jesus and a black Judas . There was a bit of an outcry at the ‘negative image’ created by such a casting (remember, we are at a time when race issues were to the forefront of politics in a number of countries).

Quite rightly Mr Jewison pointed out that the ‘political correctness’ of those protesting was blinding them to the ‘unprejudiced’ nature of the casting – and that those objecting were, at best, misguided: What is trying to stop a black man from playing a major role in a major filmed musical on the grounds of the colour of a his skin if it is not prejudice?

I think this highlights the problem of political correctness and acting Othello – and also gives the best answer to the problem – to deny any actor the right to play any character in the play on the grounds of their race (and I’d add gender and culture) is just plane wrong – it is a denial of our common humanity and a clear example of prejudice.

It is also a common mistake ‘in understanding’ of the nature of theatre: Nothing on the stage is real – everything is illusion (and isn’t): All the World’s a Stage.

Shakespeare knew all about the illusions of life and the stage and one place he tackles it is in ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream”. His rude mechanicals hang on to the need to ‘bring moonlight’ into the hall they are to perform in – and they have to give the ‘lion’ a speech of denial – don’t be fooled, he’s really a man, not a man eater. Shakespeare is taking a quick kick at the literal minded (and dangerous) Puritans – but also exploiting what for many people at the time was an essential question – what is the nature of reality and the connection between the life we lead and what we really are?

No doubt exists in my mind that Othello is was meant to be looked on as a potential ‘everyman/everywoman’. (I also think the same of Shylock.)

There is a correction in the above paragraph is has been turned to was as I have pointed out elsewhere, the text we have inherited is incomplete: The director, actors and audience do not miraculously shed the contemporary when they enter the theatre – despite the illusions of costumes and design, the obscuring quaintness of some of the language and tedious programme briefs, today is ever present.

I live in a country, Romania, where once performances of Shakespeare could carry a revolutionary message – when Ian McKellen brought his Richard III to Bucharest, the audience knew it was about dictatorship and corrupt political government – just like that of Ceausescu’s.

Whilst not wishing to limit theatre to this potential political dimension, it is a legitimate concern at times and a legitimate function of ‘theatre’. Brecht, after all, did exist. The casting of a white man as Othello can be symptomatic of political and social oppression. How Brecht would have challenged such oppression in the theatre I cannot say – but I can be certain he would have challenged it.

But Stanislavski also existed. And Eisenstein. Russia, during iconoclastic, revolutionary times producing icons for the future of almost the oldest profession in its newest manifestation.

How we got to modern Hollywood from such noble ancestors beggars belief, but we did (sorry – I actually enjoy a lot of the output of Hollywood, but I’ve got my low-grade-intellectual hat on at the moment).

Film, as it appears in Western popular entertainment, promotes a deceptive realism. If a character is meant to be ‘Afro-American’ he has to be played by ‘a person of colour’. The only exception I can think of to this in recent cinema is Antony Hopkins – who played (excellently) an ‘interesting’ part in a ‘worthy’ film about a ‘black’ man whose skin colour was light enough for him to pass as ‘white’ and who eventually gets accused of racism against black students.

Mr Hopkins, of course, also did a brilliant job as Othello in the BBC Shakespeare.

With the majority of people’s exposure to acting and storytelling (and, I suspect, Shakespeare) being essentially ‘filmic’, it is not surprising that a recent conversation I had with one young man, to whom I had lent Orson Welles’ film version of the play, started with the question – “Why didn’t they cast a black actor as Othello?” He went on to say you could tell Othello was wearing makeup.

I wonder if he would ask the same question about a stage performance?

If he lived in the USA most likely – combine the political realities with the deceptive film reality and expectations would be casting to ‘type’.

Over in Britain there has been a tradition of black actors playing Othello (from Paul Robeson onwards) at the same time as more traditional castings such as Laurence Olivier (in a controversial blacked-up performance).

But then again, British theatre productions owe a much stronger debt to Brecht than to almost any other practical theatre theoretician. It is one of those delicious ironies that an approach to theatre designed to focus the audience on social and political issues can result in magnificent musical dross like ‘Cats’ – which, in case you didn’t realise it, employed some of the greatest of Britain’s Shakespearean talent in its original production.

So, to return to my question, is this issue one of Politics, or Theatre?


You have to make a choice – Politics or Theatre: Power or Imagination.

They are not the only choices available nor, necessarily, the most important; neither are they mutually exclusive, but they are certainly potent and polarising.

But what about the acting?

Friday, October 12, 2007

In black and white: A question of Othello?

I’ve been looking at Othello – or rather, I’ve been looking at the skin of Othello. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve watched several versions of the play on DVD and, as a result of a point raised by in a comment (by Ian Thal), I have been not so concerned about the issues raised by the play’s text as about whether a white actor can still ‘black up’ and play the lead.

The answer is obvious – of course they ‘can’ - but then a more troubling word SHOULD replaces the can.

The more I thought about the question, the greater the tangle of ideas became, spreading out wider and wider through many aspects of both theatre and modern life. Three key questions did emerge however:

1. What effect does the social environment an audience lives in have?
2. Is this a question of Politics or Theatre?
3. Is this about typecasting?

I’ll try to tackle each of these issues in turn over my next three posts.

1. What effect does the social environment an audience lives in have?

There is no doubt in my mind that the social context is important to all performances of all plays – that performing Othello, for example in Northern Cyprus will have a considerably different impact from performing it in Moscow; a performance in a Burnley High School for a bunch of very mixed-race-and-religion teenagers, will not carry the same meaning as exactly the same production performed in a pub in Buxton.

All four of the locations chosen above are known to me – I’ve lived and/or worked in each of them. A white actor blacked up would have a varying significance to each member of the audience in each of those locations – but a more generalised reaction is likely to occur.

I suspect few in Moscow would even be aware of an issue existing – it would be considered ‘OK’. There is a frequently-aired-on-TV classic film about Pushkin where the main role is played by a famous Russian stage actor, blacked-up. I find it strange that, in a deeply racist modern Russia, the National Poet is not only thought to have been dark skinned, but to have had slave ancestry: A white actor playing him is ‘normal’ – and his mixed race origin almost a source of pride. Shakespeare’s plays are considered classics and what matters is the quality of the actor – and the idea of quality acting in Russia is something I will return to in a latter post.

Northern Cyprus is somewhat different: Essentially a Muslim country, the location of the setting of the second half of Othello and very ‘British’ in many respects. Again, I have a sneaking suspicion that there would be little impact in the white actor Othello – as long as he ‘Blacked-up’ and didn’t go for the last-year’s-trend of lighter skinned muslim-ish Othello (after the Ottoman envoy picture). I can even imagine Turkish actors happily blacking up to play the part themselves (the ‘uncircumcised dog’ line would have to be cut though)!

What both of these societies have, which they would bring to the performance, is a different focus from modern American and British society with regards to social issues and colour. The word black does not carry the same resonance – in Russia a ‘black’ is anyone who is not essentially fair-skinned: Georgians are blacks to the Muscovite, as are Chechens, and people from Dagestan.

On Cyprus, Greekness and Turkishness are far more relevant than skin colour – Religion, language and culture are so much ‘at issue’ that Othello’s skin could be viewed almost as a tone rather than a colour: In Gazimagusa (former Venetian stronghold on the island) he would be a representative of a defeated European Christian colonial power, and his otherness just an aspect of a greater weakness and disunity which soon resulted in the Ottoman takeover.

The two locations in England bring up a whole set of different attitudes and there is a greater blur between the political and social concerns people will bring to a performance.

Colour and religion are connected in the UK – and the issue of Othello’s ethnicity carries a greater weight, with a different distribution, than in many other societies (including, I suspect, ‘Christian’ USA). Othello has to be ‘surface other’ – he can be other ‘olive’ he can be other ’black’ – but other is essential. But Othello must also be ‘us’ – homo – in both the sense of humankind and oneness: He is ‘yin and yang’ – he is innocence and experience: Angel and devil.

He is homo-genius and homo-simpleton!

In the contemporary mixed race, mixed religion, mixed-gender school, Othello becomes an internet of issues and concerns – a white male actor assuming skin colour is not a ‘nigger minstrel’ – and is; he is both a unity of Britishness and a relic of Elizabethan Englishness and ‘Blackamoor’ attitude.

A ‘black’ male actor – let us say with Caribbean antecedents – looses some of that friction but replaces it with others – race and mixed marriage is strangely brought more to the fore – a white actor, albeit with a black face, is still a white actor – a real black actor is black! In cosmopolitan London this might not signify – in working-class, mixed race Burnley, with its strong far-right nationalisms, it does.

And modern DNA analysis is digging up all sorts of skeletons – African genes brought into Britain with the Romans – and happily bouncing around in the gene pool of the whole of the British Isles ever since. Not to mention the realisation that a sizeable proportion of the 50’s immigrants from Jamaica and the other colonies were carrying not only the slave bloodline but that of the white slave masters mixed forcibly together.

Popular television programmes and national educational requirements mean that some of the audience in this school would know these things – and, hopefully, apply them to the questions raised by the play and its casting.

But what if the actor is neither ‘white’ male nor ‘black’ male – but Pakistani male? Or Jewish? Or Chinese? Each and every one represented in that school audience.

Surely all have a right to an Othello?

A couple of hours car drive away and you could be sitting the pub in front of the Opera House in Buxton during the summer festival – watching a performance of Shakespeare’s Othello (the Opera House would have Verdi’s take – where the question of painted singers doesn’t even raise a butterfly’s wind beat of doubt). Here you are much more likely to have a middleclass, ‘educated’ audience – used to theatre conventions and aware of the ‘classic’ issues – with a degree of respect for the traditions and an eagerness for novelty.

Would race feature in their thoughts more than gender? Is this a question of prejudice or of class? Good and evil in battle for the soul or greed and materialism as a source of the contemporary decline in culture and standards?

Yes, there would be a nod in the direction of should they/shouldn’t they black-up – but after all, this is the theatre – suspension of disbelief and all that – not to mention our own sophistication and the real issues of the play.

I know I am oversimplifying all four potential audiences - but there is a degree of truth (at least as I have witnessed) in all four representations.

As for answering the question, “Should a white actor black up to play Othello?” Well, I think I’ve got as far as yes – and no.

More intriguing a question is, “Could a black actor play Iago?”

(To be continued.)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Friday, October 05, 2007

Oh, the horror, the horror!

At first sight there isn’t much to connect Stephen King with Shakespeare – maybe even at second sight. But I was watching the BBC Othello yesterday when one of those ‘ermmm’ thoughts struck: Iago and Mr. Gaunt.

Mr. Gaunt, from King’s ‘Needful Things’, is unashamedly and unequivocally, a devil: ‘The Gaunt-thing hissed and shook its claws at them,” (pg 780 in my paperback version). He appears, however, a friendly, helpful, elderly man to almost all – delusion and reality.

Iago? Is he a devil or is he a man? Is he a human gone bad or a personification of evil? That’s one debate that’s not going to go away – but the unanswerability of the questions is key to the play – and as I keep trying to persuade people, Shakespeare’s greatness is in the questions he raises and not in any answers he doesn’t provide.

This is also the weakness of King – we get an answer - an ending (sort of happy) and a tag – it’s all starting again, which is so formulaic it is almost a sign of compulsive writing disorder. Evil is defeatable, the American dream is fightable for, small communities just need the right man to protect them, or else . . . blah, blah, blah.

Both Iago and Mr Gaunt work by constructing a false trail – trails that could, at first sight, seem simple jests – tricks and practical jokes which rely on the witless participation of others: King gives us Brian Rusk, Shakespeare, Rodrigo. Both use the weaknesses of their agents, but there is a difference in their victims.

Othello, Desdemona, innocents in black and white, do nothing to further their own destruction in the way Mr. Gaunt’s customers do – they do not, of their own free will, enter the shop. Iago is not playing with people’s bodies so much as with their souls: Whether he knows it is not at issue – he appears motivated by greed, jealousy and spite; he seeks Othello’s mental torture and physical destruction, not his soul’s damnation – but that is what Iago (almost?) achieves.

Gaunt is single-minded in his exploitation of a weakness in a culture – the pursuit of happiness at the expense of life and liberty. There is no chance of resisting because you have already made the choice – you are already damned and Gaunt simple takes you all the way. This dreadful inevitability is a criticism of American materialism and its pernicious effect on everyone from young children to religious leaders, from the town drunk to the town councillor. (Is this sounding as much like ‘sixties hippy’ to you as it is to me?)

At the heart of Shakespeare’s play is the impossibility of giving up free choice – no matter how many times you watch it, you think ‘ don’t believe him’, ‘don’t drink that extra cup’, ‘don’t . . .’: At no point is there an inevitability. Iago, right to the end, doesn’t think there is – in the final act he says he has either succeeded, or he hasn’t.

It seems to me that this is what makes Othello a tragedy – the possibility of an alternative.

It also seems to me to be the thing that makes Mr King’s book a Horror – the simple chain of cause and effect is inescapable.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

A girdle round about the Earth

How can I not think of the lines from A Midsummer Nights Dream on the 50th birthday of Sputnik?

And this is a taster of the company I work fors progress into the Space Age - gives a perspective I think to some of the things they get me to do!!!!