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?


Ste. Goldie said...

I'm going to the open audition of JC Superstar tomorrow! I've always wanted to by Judas but I'm a girl!!! I wanted to be Eddie Murphy when I was little. Great blog!

Alan K.Farrar said...

Good luck!

(I've updated the post by the way since you left your message.)

Ian Thal said...

Interesting that I saw a production of Macbeth last night that featured an all female cast. It "Macbeth in drag" however; It was some of Boston's best female stage talent in a great play.

The direction and acting were excellent-- and isn't that what it important? The only flaw I saw wasn't a woman playing a man's role-- but an actor who is remarkable in her comic roles, slipping ironic and sarcastic tones of voice into a tragic speech-- that's a mistake a talented male actor can make in such a role at the beginning of a run. (We also had a black, dreadlocked Malcolm as son of a white, blonde haired Duncan, and a white fleance as son of a black Banquo.)

On the topic of Judas in Jesus Christ: Superstar: let's not forget that the character is apparently an invention of first century Christians after they had decided that they were a religion separate from Judaism, and so acts as a personification of the Deicide chargeand acts as the archtype from which so many anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews have sprung, so having a black actor in that role is actually casting against stereotype.

Alan K.Farrar said...

If you could have boys being girls in Shakey's time, girls being boys now is fine by me!
I actually will be touching on this in part 3.
The JC thing is a minefield - the Wiki entry (I think - might be elsewhere) shows the changes that had to be made in the lyrics to accommodate 'Christian Sensibilities': American I'd guess as they weren't needed in the UK.

Ian Thal said...

Just to add a snarky mine to the field:

JCSS would have been so much better if someone had commissioned Pete Townshend to write the music and lyrics. I always felt the music was faux-rock'n'roll.

Ian Thal said...

P.S. my earlier comment should have read:

"It was not "Macbeth in drag" however, it was some of Boston's best female stage talent in a great play."

sorry about that.

Scot said...


Just wanted to say thanks!

I just finished writing my Scholarship English Examination and some of your ideas about the geographical context of readers came in incredbly handy answering one of the three questions we had to write on.

Just a note saying thanks for putting such relevant content up, its been great extension for me (applies to those videos of your lecture, also).

Cheers mate