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Tuesday 22 January 2019

Sometimes gender should be unbending

Equal-opportunities casting is all very well but too much role-reversal can destroy a classic part

By Martin Samuel

Jameela Jamil has said that she turned down the role of a deaf person recently, as she is only partially hard of hearing. “I said it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to take that role and they should find a brilliant deaf woman,” she explained. “I think you have to make those choices, not be too greedy and make space rather than take space.”

Jamil sounds a nice person. Enough doors are shut in the faces of disabled actors that it would be crass to complain when one opens. And deaf should play deaf. Not immutably. There has to be room for acting in the theatre too, as Cate Blanchett believes. “I will fight to the death to play roles beyond my experience,” she has insisted.

If there is an opportunity to cast an actor with a disability it should be taken, or at least fully explored before an alternative is sought. That seems fair. Yet there is a growing movement against able-bodied actors taking disabled roles; or straight actors playing gay. Bryan Cranston has been criticised for going wheelchair-bound in the film The Upside; Scarlett Johansson drew a hostile reaction when it was revealed she would be playing a transgender man; and there was significant negativity when Jack Whitehall, who is straight, was announced as the voice of the first gay main character in a Disney film.

Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart in The Upside

Yet now it is getting muddled. Despite this apparent desire to keep acting out of acting, gender swaps and changes of ethnicity mean theatregoers are expected to suspend belief with ever increasing frequency. Mostly, that’s fine, too. Switching the lead character from Bobby to Bobbie in the recent London production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company gave the show its biggest lift in decades. Sondheim was sceptical at first, but said on seeing the production that he could not imagine his show any other way from now on. He’s right. It’s brilliant. Better. Its wit remains and makes more sense to modern audiences with a female lead.

Yet what of Macbeth, or Othello? What of productions where the gender or ethnicity of a character defines them and does the heavy lifting in the narrative too? What if Lady Macbeth is suddenly surrounded by warrior females, as she was at the National Theatre last year, or the Moor is not alone in his otherness, as happened most recently at Shakespeare’s Globe. How hard should the audience have to work to believe in a scenario or to ignore dialogue that no longer relates to what they see?

At the National’s production of Macbeth – which had enough faults without adding to it, but here goes – the play opened with a rather savage beheading. This was committed by the Thane of Ross, played by a woman. And that really would not be a problem if we did not swiftly move, in Act I Scene V, to the Nissen hut that appeared to house Lady Macbeth – it was a Rufus Norris production, there was much wrong with it – where she delivered her most crucial speech.

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers…

So Lady Macbeth needs to be stripped of her womanhood to carry out the vile plan she is hatching. She has to become masculine and violent, cold and remorseless, capable of great cruelty, devoid of maternal instinct. You know, more like the Thane of Ross, that woman we last saw chopping a bloke’s head off.

At this point Lady Macbeth is the second hardest woman on stage, considering Ross seems to be going about her business without a great deal of agonising and unsexing. And on it goes. By the time Macbeth dispatches two lowlifes to kill Banquo, one male, one female, his wife is the play’s third toughest female and, frankly, coming across as a bit of a pussy, considering she is racked with guilt over a murder she did not have the courage to commit. At the end of the play, when Lady Macbeth is driven to suicide by her actions – sorry for the spoiler but you’ve had since 1606 – she’s coming off as little more than a high maintenance pest. There’s a lot of can-do women around here, love. Warriors, murderers, women who know how to get a job done. What makes you so special?

And she’s meant to be special. That’s the point. She’s meant to be different. Lady Macbeth is an outlier, a woman capable of planning regicide, of assisting a murder, but who ultimately cannot escape her gentler instincts, the anguish brought on by her actions. She is destroyed by guilt and remorse, not her husband’s paranoia and bloody ambition, and her final scenes are played out in the wailing loneliness of abandonment. A loneliness that would not be felt if she was surrounded by like-minded females, chopping off heads and murdering troublesome opponents.

A lot of the critics rubbished this Macbeth because it was set in a seemingly apocalyptic landscape. It resembled Mad Max more than 11th-century Scotland and if society has broken down, who cares for kings anyway? Norris, it was said, did not appreciate the text. He certainly did not appreciate Lady Macbeth, her isolation, her uniqueness. Gender swaps are about more than pronoun changes, and handing out the odd random break in the company. They mess with text, they mess with meaning. Badly thought out role reversals mess with your mind, and what is before your eyes.

Sheila Atim and Andre Holland in Othello

At the Globe last year there was a production of Othello. Lodovico, the Venetian diplomat who bears witness to the play’s tragic events, had been gender swapped. No problem. Gender isn’t the biggest issue in Othello. Like thousands of roles, in thousands of plays, it really doesn’t matter if Lodovico is male or female. Cassio, however, was black. So was Iago’s wife, Emilia. Oh dear. Must we do this? Yes, we must.

When one considers that as recently as 1965, Laurence Olivier blacked up to portray Othello and played him like he couldn’t decide whether to strangle Desdemona or sing Mammy, the debt the entertainment industry owes to black actors is indisputable. If every theatre were commanded to put on all-black productions of Hamlet, King Lear and just about any other Shakespearean play for the rest of this century to make amends, it still wouldn’t redress the balance.

But Othello is, once again, an outlier. He’s alone, isolated in Venetian society. And Iago is, quite plausibly, racially motivated in wishing to destroy him. So if Iago is married to a black woman, and the man Othello falsely suspects of cuckolding him is also black, this rather undermines the plot; particularly when Othello muses that his blackness is the reason Desdemona is unfaithful. What does he mean? He’s blacker than Cassio? He’s blacker than Emilia, Desdemona’s attendant? It cannot be about skin colour if Cassio is the other man.

A great many people find Shakespearean dialogue hard to follow. Texts have been reduced to comic books in schools to help newcomers pick through the meaning. We are not exactly helping them here, are we, if we fiddle with the crux of the text, and fail to make clear that Othello’s skin sets him apart and makes him vulnerable; that his jealousy, preyed upon by Iago, is ripe for exploitation for this very reason? We can shift Shakespeare to modern settings, to the future, to the Moon if we wish, we can reappraise and retune, and give fresh meaning for our modern world. But Othello, Lady Macbeth, Shylock: these are characters who must always stand alone if they are to be the subject of empathy and understanding.


John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy in Stan and Ollie

It is all very inconsistent. The partially deaf cannot pretend to be deaf, but black can be white, and girls can be boys and the audience just has to compute what is thrown at them. Jack Whitehall can’t act gay, but John C Reilly can wear a fat suit to play Oliver Hardy, and no mention. What about fat actors? Don’t they need casting breaks too? It can’t just be John Goodman who gets to work with the Coen brothers and everyone else labours in bit-part roles. It’s complicated. Particularly if you’re out there on the paying side, wondering why Lady Macbeth doesn’t just pull herself together and, for want of a better phrase, man up. Hey, Lady. What’s the matter with you? Be more Ross.