[This is something of a work in progress. It’s also already much too long. It currently stands at 7,500 words and, frankly, that more than I expect anyone to read. So I’m putting it up here now so you can browse it at your leisure and we can continue the thing in the comments thread]
Steinstermeier's Deutsche Betonanstalt production of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Wig Out!*
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a couple of pieces about the “nationality” of plays and perceptions of plays’ “racial origins”.
I’d meant to come back to this topic sooner with a further piece about the way that plays are cast, but writing up a bunch of shows seemed to get in the way.
Since that point casting seems to have become something of a “live” issue, and in rather a silly way.
The version that’s currently [well, when I started this anyway] raging over at the Guardian Blog at the moment was triggered by Matt Trueman’s piece which begins by noting a controversy over criticism of a “gay actor” playing a “straight” character in the U.S..
It’s as good an entry point as any. Trueman’s piece veers off into an area with which I’m not so much concerned. He says: “...we so associate Hayes with a character who is gay... that we cannot shake off that idea and accept him as straight. The fiction presented, therefore, is judged to have failed. We are not *convinced*. The truth is, however, that this happens all the time...” and goes on to discuss the fluffy, unproblematic issue of how memories of actors’ past performances can intrude into current ones.
The thing that interests me about the whole “casting” debate, though, is what people mean by “convinced”. This subject was recently visited by Alexis Soloski. Her piece, while utter rubbish, is worth picking over. Through its unthinking regurgitation of prejudices and received wisdoms, it does a good job of laying out the issues we’re dealing with.
Soloski’s subject is “unconventional casting”. She opens with an account of seeing a performance in which the part of a teenage girl was played by “a 31-year-old actress who resembled not a pimply teen, but a confident woman with an excellent skin care regime.” Soloski suggests that “the piece would have been much more distressing had an adolescent been cast.”
What she seems to be saying is that, a) watching a 31-year-old “have an affair with her mother's boyfriend, flirt with lesbianism, down Quaaludes and dabble in smack” is less “disturbing” to her (flirting with lesbianism is *disturbing*, btw?) and that, b) she doesn’t understand how theatre might differ from television.
Already she doesn’t go far enough: the show might have been even more “disturbing” if a six-year-old had been cast, for example, and I dare say would have been a good deal more unsettling if the teenage girl in question had been played by, say, David Hoyle.
But, Soloski isn’t actually thinking about the stage or how it works. She’s thinking about trying to make things as literal as possible. Which makes perfect sense for a medium like theatre, where there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever not to suspend disbelief and to want everything in front of you to be as true to life as humanly possible.
Soloski goes on to give historical context: “theatre history is replete with examples of unconventional or less-than-ideal casting.” It’s worth noting at this juncture – given that this is a piece in which Soloski is apparently due to “praise” “unconventional” casting – that she’s just lined up “unconventional” as a synonym of “less-than-ideal”. It doesn’t take a genius to spot that this equates The Convention with The Ideal.
Her examples are pretty depressing: “From the Dionysian fests [“fests”!] onwards, men played women, Greeks played Persians, mortals played gods.” But, fear not, all this compromise is now over: “These days we no longer prohibit women on stage and if your script calls for a Persian, it's no trouble to hire an Iraqi thesp with an equity card.” Or you could even get an Iranian. Funny that she drops the bit about the Gods at this point.
Still, she bravely chunters on:
“With a full range of possibilities available, when should a production plump for an actor who resembles the character in age, race, gender, etc and when and why should less conformist casting occur?”
“Less conformist” she now volunteers, apparently forgetting that she’s already equated “convention” with “ideal” and now perhaps hoping to make less-than-ideal casting sound coolly “non-conformist”. But that mild nudge is countered by all those “should”s “When and why?” she asks, still totally married to this “ideal”.
She chucks a couple of the most conservative ideas for “unconventional” casting imaginable around and then retreats back into her laughable comfort zone of uninterrogated terminology.
“In realistic drama, I prefer more traditional casting,” [my emphases]
“...though in the hands of a thoughtful director an irregular choice can often provide a useful commentary on the social world of the play.” [ditto. I don’t really need to spell out my objections, do I?]
“In more stylised works, I'm eager [!] to accept whomever in the role and I think there's something wonderful about surrendering to an actor who looks nothing like the character,”
Who. Looks. Nothing. Like. The. Character.
But it’s unfair to hold Soloski entirely accountable for airing her ridiculous prejudices. After all, she is using simple, broadly uncontested language to describe uninterrogated phenomena familiar to all Anglophone theatregoers.
She is only describing the status quo. Indeed, tentatively, boringly, she is imagining that her wild fancy to see someone who “looks nothing like the character” play that character is somehow “unconventional”. And in a depressing way, she’s right. She might actually be out on a limb with this one. Maybe lots of people would rather only ever see actors who *do look like the characters* they are playing.
And yet, badly expressed though her point is, I know exactly what she means. Yet, this is the not-properly-debated, or even *-understood*, area from which several of the previous and subsequent debates on the subject have sprung.
The rather prickly issue of writing about performers’ physical appearances was the subject of my first Guardian Blog back in 2007. Re-reading it I’m struck by how few links I included as examples at the time. More striking, though, is how many more examples of this question alone there have been since the piece was published; perhaps most famously Maureen Lipman’s set-to with Charles Spencer over his disobliging comments about her looks. Clearly, *physical appearance* remains a core issue when considering an *actor* on stage.
This question of describing what a performer looks like – or, less exclusively, of how audience members *see* (perhaps “read”) what a performer looks like – is one of the many odd fractures which run through the infinitely problematic (or at least “problematisable”) process of watching theatre.
It’s an issue that Imogen Russell-Williams picks up on part of in 2008 in her blog Big Women on Stage. I responded at the time with the piece When it comes to staging, we play it way too safe.
“Mainstream Anglophone theatre tradition remains so absolutely married to the idea of literal-minded mimesis that there is virtually no hint that anything but the text can invent meaning on stage beyond dumb representation. This is partly why arguments about the “politics” of the physical proportions of actors are possible in the first place. Because a thin woman on stage finds herself representing nothing more than a thin woman, or, by extension, thin women. It’s like we've grasped the idea that something on stage is pregnant with meaning, but, thanks to our abandonment of metaphor and our largely normative, descriptive so-called “political theatre”, this level of representation simply gets plugged into boring complaints about “pretty” girls getting all the jobs.”
Ok, it was a bit of a broad brush, but I still basically stand by it. What’s interesting to me now is the way that – because I was just naïvely excited about mainland Europe’s approach to “unconventional casting” in “realistic theatre” – I didn’t especially engage with the meta-theatrical way in which – in this specific context – the properties of the actual bodies of the performers *were* being enlisted precisely *to* *create* surprise and effect.
But Nübling’s P*rnographie seems to be an exception rather than a rule in that respect, which may account for why I missed it at the time.
Generally speaking, German theatre seems much less concerned with explicitly “naturalistic” (what Soloski myopically calls “conventional”) casting (although, more often than not, men still play men, women women and actors’ ages broadly/loosely correspond to characters’ ages). While I’m not saying that its approach is either better or worse, it does make an incredibly useful alternative model against which we Britons can measure how deeply our attitudes are ingrained.
At the same time, Germany also highlights another – weirdly unaddressed – issue in Anglophone theatre’s tradition of so-called “naturalistic” casting. German theatre tends to be remarkable for the way in which its actors look a bit more like the rest of us. There’s a description of a type of actor in Germany as “too good-looking for theatre”. I’m pretty sure I’ve written about it other than in that Guardian blog, but it does strike me as odd that – in British/Anglophone theatre – at the same time as purporting to be “realistic” in its casting (y’know, casting “actors who look like the characters”), most plays seem to end up with preternaturally “good-looking” casts. This goes double for musicals and treble for the West End – assuming, that is, you’re prepared to sign-up to the problematic, uninterrogated use of the term “good-looking” that I just used about five times above without discernibly flinching.
Because, of course, “good-looking” is a rather loaded ideological judgement.
And this is where yet another dimension of this ridiculous “casting” question can be brought in: the way in which theatre/casting/performers relate/s to the wider world. Which brings us (not very) neatly to a previous piece on the subject Trueman wrote following on from Soloski’s about a month ago.
In the comments on the piece, “JayPeeBee” notes press and audience reactions to the casting of black actor Danny Sapani as Hans Christian Andersen in Sebastian Barry’s play Andersen's English.
The way s/he frames it, the “in favour” comments include: “touchingly and hilariously played by the black actor Danny Sapani as if to emphasise Andersen's outsider status.” in the Telegraph and “Andersen's outsider status is emphasised by the casting of the excellent black actor Danny Sapani” in the Independent
Reviews against the casting: “The creed of ‘colour-blind casting’ insists that a black man can play a white man (it is seldom tried vice-versa) and that audiences, and particularly critics, should not protest, but I’m afraid it’s absurd here” from the Daily Mail and “this troubling reduction and objectification of ethnic difference” in Variety. It’s worth stopping here, and looking a bit more closely at these last two responses.
Karen Fricker’s Variety review has above been particularly unfairly shorn of context. The full paragraph reads: “But the biggest question about the production is Sapani's casting: given that the rest of the actors are white and the costuming and set design are faithful to the Victorian period, it seems that his race is meant to underline the sense of him being an outsider -- a troubling reduction and objectification of ethnic difference.”
Quentin Letts’s Daily Mail review is similarly truncated. The original reads: “Danny Sapani's Andersen is, however, a disaster. First, he is black. The creed of 'colour-blind casting' insists that a black man can play a white man (it is seldom tried vice-versa) and that audiences, and particularly critics, should not protest, but I'm afraid it's absurd here. Why go to all the lengths of making Mr Rintoul such a ringer for Dickens - and then cast chunky, big-voiced, still youthful Mr Sapani as a white, elderly, Danish bore?”
Ian Shuttleworth in his editorial to the relevant edition of Theatre Record (which to the best of my knowledge doesn’t include Variety) suggests: “Quentin is here making a basic error of implicitly equating “should not protest” with “should not notice”; it doesn’t seem to occur to him that we may have been meant to pay attention to the casting of Danny Sapani as Hans Christian Andersen. Aleks Sierz, on the same page of this issue, grasps it entirely and deals with it almost in passing: Andersen’s “Danish otherness”, he notes, is “emphasised by the fact that he is played by a black actor”.
Of course, Letts cocks his objection up by trying to maintain the Daily Mail’s stance as punk rock rebel in the face of The Establishment’s pesky “political correctness” (not such a laughable equation – lest we forget, the Sex Pistols wore Swastikas) and by not knowing much about theatre. Thus, he labels the decision “colour-blind casting”. In fact, as Fricker notes, it’s the opposite. But, unlike Sierz, Spencer and Taylor, Fricker suggests that casting a black man to represent a white character’s “otherness” in what is otherwise a totally naturalistic production of a historical play based on real people, might not be all that clever after all.
It is actually the opposite of “colour-blind”. It is asking the audience to note that specific, physical fact about the performer and to interpret that one physical fact (their skin colour) as symbolic of something. It strikes me, on an intellectual level – I didn’t see the play, so can’t judge the actuality –, that this might be argued to be some pretty dim thinking.
JayPeeBee goes on to note: “In the bar after a performance an audience member was overheard saying “I didn't know that Hans Andersen was black”. Which raises questions as to what people expect of theatre that offers a representation of “real” people and of any factual theatre. Can the appearance of an actor be metaphorical as well as literal?”
This does frame the question pretty much perfectly, but it dodges specifying precisely *what* about the actor might be a metaphor for *what* about the character. Which brings us back to this idea of a performer having “*real world* properties”. It also brings up an interesting question of how these might co-exist simultaneously.
After all, both Letts’s and Fricker’s objections to Danny Sapani’s casting stem from the fact that apparently *nothing* else in the show was being asked to signify anything other than exactly what it “looked like”, and yet Sapani’s skin colour apparently *was* being asked to signify something, yet at the same time to not exist literally in the world on stage.
There was less certainty when the issue blew up over the casting of Jenny Jules in the 2008 Almeida production of Pinter’s The Homecoming. I remember being hugely impressed by Mark Shenton’s unequivocal response at the time, and it still bears re-reading (not least, as well, for its round-up of other critics’ positions). Here, despite Jules (again a black actor) playing another *other* (in this case, the only woman, and, again, the only non-member of a family), it seemed clear to more reviewers either before or after consideration, that the actress had been selected because of her qualities as an actress and that her race had nothing to do with it.
It’s interesting that Shenton mentions white Othellos in his stout defence of colour-blind casting, with the rider that “We imagine we wouldn't countenance a white Othello any more. But when British director Jude Kelly surrounded Patrick Stewart in the title role by an otherwise all-black cast, in Washington DC in 1997, Peter Marks wrote a New York Times review praising how “in the race reversing, the company seeks to shatter stereotypes and remind playgoers of the endlessly adaptive nature of Shakespeare's exploration of otherness”.”
Except, of course, that changing *everyone’s* race so that a black character can be played by a white actor isn’t really “colour-blind” so much as, uh, “negative casting”. By “shatter stereotypes” presumably Marks means “we get to see black actors playing a range of rounded characters rather than people defined by their colour”. But of course we *would* be pretty shocked to see a white man playing Othello here in Britain. Infinitely more so, if he were “blacked-up” to do so. Back once more to Germany, where the question is viewed in almost the exact inverse to the way it’s seen here.
Here are three links to photos of recent productions of Othello in German-speaking theatres:
Stefan Pucher’s production at Schauspielhaus, Hamburg
Luc Perceval’s at Münchner Kammerspiele (you have to scroll down to fotos)
and lastly Jan Bosse at the Burgtheater
I know. It takes a bit of explaining to Anglophone eyes [if you see what I mean].
Ian Shuttleworth has addressed the question of Germany’s stage conventions relating to black characters here. He starts out noting the stage directions to Dea Loher’s Innocence, which had recently been staged at the Arcola:
“I noted that director Helena Kaut-Howson had chosen not to follow author Dea Loher’s suggestion that the two black characters need not be played by black actors. “‘No need for pretence of authenticity,’ notes the stage direction, which is rather less true in a country whose discourse of race and multiculturalism is more complex than that in which the play was written and is set. I do not think a British writer would be allowed to deploy such figures so baldly as emblems of otherness.””
This last point is interesting, in relation to the Andersen’s English debate, where a black actor has been directorially deployed as to symbolise a white character’s “otherness” and the decision has been commented on approvingly. However, I think in the above quoted passage Shuttleworth misunderstands both what Loher means by her note and the convention/culture to which it is addressed.
In Loher’s script two characters are black, but she says they need not be played by black actors. “No need for *pretence* of authenticity” she says. It’s a canny differentiation. What she’s actually saying is: “I, a white, female, German writer, have created these two black characters. Having them played by two black actors, won’t make them any more authentic.”
It comes at the question of “being patronising” or “imperialism” from completely the opposite direction. Instead of thinking that having these characters *played* by black actors, it’s suggesting that it is perhaps more questionable to get a black actor/performer to perform a white writer’s imagination of their race. By this logic, doesn’t a white person playing Othello actually make just as much if not more sense, not least as a comment on precisely the sort of thing that we think we’re not saying by solemnly vowing that from now on only black actors will ever play Othello again?
I certainly see the internal logic of the argument. Although I’m not sure I honestly believe either the German or British position is ultimately *correct*.
But there are other reasons that the conclusion falls this way across the North Sea. Firstly, as I’ve already noted, in Germany an actor’s talent is considered before the way they look, cf. the earlier debate about “conventional” casting, and about physical attractiveness. How much less condescending, again, to give the part to the best actor, rather than whichever actor happens to be the right colour, they might reasonably argue.
Secondly, and more pressingly, one might imagine, Germany has far, far fewer black actors. In this respect, Britain’s desire to ensure that Othello is always played by a black actor (not yet a female black actor, though, to the best of my knowledge), is – given our mostly still “traditional” casting methods – just basic fairness. There are precisely two explicitly black characters in Shakespeare. If everyone’s being cast to “look exactly like the character” then it’s hardly fair to take those two parts away. Instead, the rest of the system needs turning on its head. When the system has been turned on its head, however, there is no logical reason why Othello shouldn’t be played by a white actor.
This argument again turns partly on what we are expected to see of what a performer “brings to the part”. What of them signifies something, and at what level.
In Trueman’s later piece, he opens by noting the furore caused by an article which includes a description of an actor Sean Hayes, best known for playing a camp homosexual in the U.S. television series Will and Grace, who recently came out himself, playing a heterosexual character in a play, as a “big pink elephant in the room”.
The original piece starts off in a silly place with the strap-line “Heterosexual actors play gay all the time. Why doesn't it ever work in reverse?” It’s such a big, dumb generalisation that of course the article is going to get a kicking. It further muddies the waters of my argument by mixing film, television and theatre. But its worst problem is that it never really says what it means by “gay”. Does this just mean "camp"?
Well, momentarily leaving aside the question of “acting” for a moment, even in “real life” there are camp heterosexuals and (what’s the non-loaded alternative to this?) not-camp homosexuals.
But the article isn’t really an argument about acting (indeed, it’s barely *about* anything – it certainly fails to follow a coherent through-line). The Sean Hayes thing is a silly place to start, though, since the piece’s main worry is about whether people will suspend their disbelief while watching a film if they know a lead actor playing a straight character to be gay in real life. It’s an argument with its roots buried deep in the oppression of homosexuals and their place in U.S. society even now. But, in part, it’s an argument about what anyone means by “gay”.
As far as I understand it, the gay community is about as united on the idea of what constitutes “being gay” as the Anglican Communion is about what it thinks of them. Put simply (and hopefully succinctly), it’s about wider questions than simply the gender of the people one fancies. For example: is “camp” a doctrine of faith, or an embarrassing relic from the past? Or: should gay couples demand the right to marry, or is aping heterosexual relationship models “selling out” gay culture? I’m far from ideally qualified to comment on the rights and wrongs of any given party’s point of view, so I shan’t. I’ll just note that “gay identity” isn’t a fixed point.
The Newsweek article itself, though, seems to be suggesting is that Sean Hayes is too irrepressibly camp to play a “straight guy”. Leaving aside the hundreds of “straight guys” who are irrepressibly camp across the Atlantic, perhaps the article is less relevant here, because the UK has less of a culture of definitively signalled sexuality – I mean, look at our middle classes; watch an episode of Yes, Minister, for instance, then tell me which, if any of them, are *meant* to be “gay characters”, and for that matter, which of the actors are gay. It simply isn’t the same thing.
Or consider the Carry On films. I mean, seriously, what was going on there? Kenneth Williams playing a series of apparently heterosexual letches, with no discernable lack of camp. Perhaps it was because I was only a kid when I saw them, but I was basically happy to buy into what I was being asked to buy into. I didn’t have pronounced ideas about how men or women should (or even did) behave, so, to me, Kenneth Williams (or Frankie Howerd for that matter) was a man with a particular set of mannerisms (signifying nothing) and a penchant for busty ladies.
Perhaps there’s also the question of the tradition of British Theatre acting. Thanks to Nick de Jongh’s Plague Over England, we’ve recently been reminded of the fact that Sir John Gielgud was homosexual, for example. Is that relevant to a consideration of his stage (or indeed screen) acting? I’d say not. Not least because he is such a stylised actor to begin with that sexuality of any sort barely gets a look in. Much the same is true of most other actors (of either gender) of his vintage.
But this whole question of whether “you can tell that someone is gay” seems to be a particularly weird red-herring. It seems nastily plugged into the idea that it is something that people have to hide; or else is attached to a notion that heterosexuality is a “norm” that gets “deviated from”. As prejudices go, homophobia is particularly strange, in that it seems scared of both visible manifestations of the gay community, and at the same time, deeply paranoid – seeing and seeking homosexuality where there is none. At least racism is simple. No twelve-year-old has ever been bullied on *the suspicion* that they’re black, for instance.
But this all gets us away from the question of how it relates to theatre.
Recently at the National Theatre, I saw London Assurance and Love the Sinner. Both speak interestingly to this question of “being convinced” and of how external knowledge might play a part. In London Assurance Simon Russell-Beale’s character, Sir Harcourt Courtly, becomes enamoured of Fiona Shaw’s character, Lady Gay Spanker (just don’t. it’s not helpful). I think it’s a matter of public record that both actors aren’t especially interested in the opposite sex in “real life”. On stage, it doesn’t matter a jot. Russell-Beale’s performance is, as it happens, ludicrously, exaggeratedly camp, but not in a way that indicates any sort of sexual preference and certainly not because he’s “gay in real life” and thus irrepressibly camp in all his acting. One is content to accept that Sir Harcourt has fallen for Lady Spanker because he tells us so and acts it entertainingly. It’s not about “being convinced” – as if theatre audiences default position is one of extreme scepticism.
On the other hand, in Love the Sinner, Jonathan Cullen’s character Michael is a repressed homosexual who (well, the script is desperately unclear) at the very least has sex with an African man, Joseph (Fiston Barek), and might even have fallen in love with him. Similarly, Joseph might have fallen in love with Michael, or he might just be saying that (it really is a dreadful play). I have no idea whether either actor is “gay in real life”, but on stage (which is what matters), neither was convincingly *attracted to*, let alone “in love with”, the other on stage. Fiston Barek was, however, for the record, convincingly black and Jonathan Cullen convincingly white. I believe both to be so in real life too.
Because Love the Sinner was, nominally at least, a drama of psychological insight, it all started to fall apart at precisely the moment where these two men were meant to have just had sex with each other. They didn’t “look like” they’d just had sex; they didn’t “act like” they’d just had sex. Neither of them “convincingly” portrayed someone who found the other person sexually attractive.
Even encyclopaedic knowledge of their personal lives wouldn’t have made what they were doing on stage any more (or less) convincing (although, it might have distracted just enough to take the edge off the boredom).
Of course, part of their problem seemed to be the script. They weren’t really given any lines to say that made their job any easier. As I’ve discussed before, it is notoriously difficult to ever really know where praise and blame should be apportioned. Perhaps it’s a great script and they just acted this aspect of it very poorly. Or were directed to act it very poorly. Or it was just staged in a way that killed it.
Added to this, there are my own tastes and preferences. Perhaps they were acting a great script excellently, as Michael Coveney appears to believe (although his use of the phrase “putting the jizz into Jesus” seems like a plea for us not to take him seriously).
So where has this got us? Cullen and Barek “looked like the characters” – or how we might reasonably expect a generic middle-class Englishman and a *generic* young “African” (from a totally unspecified and probably made-up part of Africa) to look. But they didn’t “convince” at all.
This question of “casting” seems to keep throwing up more and more abstruse questions of how meaning can and/or “should” be created on stage.
What do we allow to be a signifier? Moreover, what do these elements signify to us, and why? And with what effect? To what end?
As I admitted quite close to the beginning of this (now ridiculously over-long) piece for all the scorn I poured on Soloski’s desire to see characters played by “actors who looked like them”, I understood what she meant.
When the decision has been taken to cast a naturalistic play in a naturalistic way, details of the performers’ appearance seem to take on new significance. The audience is almost invited to scrutinise the performer as if they *are* the character. As if whatever they look like, whatever they sound like, is all fair game for *reading* the director’s intentions, are all keys to the piece’s total meaning.
It's not a brilliant idea. It might, for example, encourage us to be horribly judgemental. It perhaps encourages directors to try to find someone with “shifty eyes” to play the villain (are there ‘villains’ in drama any more? Does anyone actually do this?). The worst of it is when Cordelia is almost invariably cast as a youthful “innocent” blonde and Goneril and Regan as “experienced” forty-something brunettes, as if British theatre casting were the allegorical tool of Josef Goebbels.
But beyond an almost comic basic level of how it should be "read", ultra-realism poses other problems.
An interesting case recently was Chris Haydon’s production of Mick Gordon’s Pressure Drop. Haydon (no relation – but a mate, in the interests of full disclosure) scored himself what was, in the abstract, a remarkable cast, headed by Michael Goold, Justin Salinger and David Kennedy. However – with echoes of Matt Trueman’s ...theatre’s “fatal flaw” piece (terrible title. Not his) – I was amused that it was only a few month earlier that I’d last seen Salinger and Goold together on stage in Our Class at the NT (I note with less amusement that my review carries literally no mention of the play’s character’s individual stories whatsoever). In it, Goold and Salinger play Polish gentile and Polish Jew respectively, both in love with the same woman. In Pressure Drop, Goold and Salinger play two brothers (also both in love with the same woman, oddly). Goold’s character has become a potential BNP local councillor, swearing about, among other things (amusingly), Poles stealing British jobs; Salinger’s character has gone off to New York and come back a successful banker. I have no idea if Salinger is Jewish “in real life”, but the way the Our Class casting echoed – in a play full of racial slurs – in the Pressure Drop casting did disturb me.
Prosaically, Goold and Salinger also made for unlikely-looking brothers. Much more important was the impact of David Kennedy as Goold’s character’s best mate Tony. Put simply, Kennedy was “perfect casting” as a Barking-based BNP supporter. Totally, authentically cockney and physically intimidating; he looked and sounded every inch the part. As a result, though, the scene in which he and Salinger are required to have a fight, and Goold is required to pull them apart; well, it’d have been fine if it wasn’t meant to be detailed naturalism. As it was, one did sort of wonder why Salinger wasn’t dead within seconds and how on earth Goold managed to pull them apart and hold Tony back.
ACCENT / NATIONALITY / CLASS
A slightly different angle on this question is provided by comparing the reviews of That Face from Britain, Australia and America. What we’re really looking at here is the question of class – primarily as established and communicated by accent. And also, in the latter two cases, of how accent also establishes or dis-establishes location. And how actors' "real selves" impinge on the fictional "real".
It was the comments thread of Alison Croggan’s review of the Australian production which got me thinking about how this relates to the subject of “casting” and “authenticity” or the impact of “in real life-ness”. Obviously (or at least, nigh-on inevitably), the Australian production casts Australian actors. And they have Australian accents. “Yes, we have class in our society, but it's quite a different deal here.” she says.
“We might even have colonial imitations of the British class system, but they don't function in the same ways or with the same codes. Consequently director Sarah Giles's decision to stage That Face with Australian accents effectively reduces it to an enclosed family psychodrama. It still works, but you have to listen hard through the unfocusing that results: and aside from the ramifications of class, the diction remains too specifically English to sit easily with Australian accents.”
Croggan’s inference (or the director’s implication) is that by not “doing the accents”, the play has been totally transposed from London to Australia, which is interesting in itself. Much the same approach is applied to Australian plays here, to the best of my recollection, though. The said, perhaps not so many plays are quite so accent specific as That Face.
Without class it has only half a subject, as Croggan’s review suggests and the New York review seems to confirm, totally lacking any mention of class and not liking the play very much as a result; reviewing a show as a simple drama about a bad mum. Which, I guess it is, if you take away the element of class, which, aside from my prefatory notes, I hardly even bother mentioning explicitly in my own review. Perhaps because at the time I was writing my reviews solely for an English audience, who I figured would all have experience of living in England’s class society.
It’s interesting to imagine Australians playing English characters but not bothering to do the accents. Similarly, it’s interesting to consider that in this instance taking away the accents also transposes the play’s location. The example makes for a useful reminder of the actual leap that we Britons make when doing likewise with Australian plays – the last of which I saw (that I recall) being the West End revival of Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues, which happened to be one of those plays in which an ensemble of four play lots of different characters. This being Britain, each had a different regional accent for easy, immediate differentiation. Lord knows how any of that impacts on our understanding of the play or the intentions of the playwright. Presumably he never imagined any of his characters were Welsh, but what does it say to us in the audience if one of them suddenly is? Does it matter in this context or is Welshness, unlike class, not necessarily a factor in how we think of someone? Perhaps the character’s Welshness was lessened by our knowledge that Ian Hart isn’t *really* Welsh “in real life.
But – especially in “realist” drama – accent is frequently presented as a vital, intrinsic part of a character – perhaps it is even partially understood as a a key to “understanding” the character’s “personality”. So much so, in the tradition of social realist playwriting, that playwrights will often go out of their way to write dialogue in phonetic form to ensure that the importance (to them) of a particular regional/ethnic accent is not overlooked.
In broader terms, the staging of an actor’s accent and physical appearance (or the accent they’re asked to perform, at least) can also sometimes serve as a useful index of the conscious or unconscious ideology behind a director (or possibly individual actor)’s take on the world. Akin, perhaps, to the way that Max Stafford-Clark’s suggestion of “otherness” by using “blackness” ends up saying more about how Max Stafford-Clark perceives black people in Britain, than about how the Victorians viewed Danes. (I’m not, for the record, trying to suggest that M S-C is racist, per se. He’s clearly got a long track record of trying to be helpful in this respect, but it strikes me that his politics are stuck around 1979 (cf. Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, in which, to make apparently “progressive” political statements, an “effeminate” man is played by a woman, and a black servant who “wishes he was white” is played by “a white”). I just wonder if his depiction of “otherness” really strikes the chord he intends in this day and age). Similarly, it’d be nice to think that the days of “comic” northern or West Country accents were on their way out, but there doesn’t seem much evidence.
Indeed, watching some productions – Shakespeare seems especially prone to this – it often feels like stereotype after stereotype is trotted out as a kind of desperate short-hand employed by a director terrified that, without telegraphing “the sort of person the character is”, Shakespeare’s language will completely baffle modern audiences. This approach also often plugs into the crudest possible physical castings (think Juliet’s nurse in R&J, the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the gravediggers and Osrick in Hamlet, etc. etc. etc.).
While we’re on this topic of accent/“regional character”, the way that British regional accents, or perhaps actors from those regions (“in real life”), or at least actors *acting* *as if they’re from those regions*, are made to “mean” also needs noting. Beyond the “comic” accent issue, there’s an interesting study to be done of which parts of Britain are most frequently aligned with other parts of the world. What I mean is, the way that particular regions get chosen as the location or accent-of-choice for plays written in other parts of the world (I know, this sounds like a Guardian theatre blog: “Which parts of Britain are most like other parts of the world?”). for example, watching The White Guard at the NT recently, I was struck, not for the first time, that I tend to believe Scots playing Russians get a whole lot closer to behaving at least a bit like Russians than a bunch of impossibly mannered, stiff, upper-middle-class English actors ever do (and, yes, please try to ignore the massive generalisations for the time being. I’ll get to them).
It’s a similar question to the class thing in the three English-language versions of That Face. It’s partly the question of how and at what level we want our “meaning” to be manufactured.
For example, watching Chekhov’s The Seagull played by dainty, polite, ever-so-English actors, you end up imagining a whole set of British values (either modern or antique) (and, yes, obviously what “British values” might be is another big question which I’ll skip for the time being, thanks) onto Russians from another century. Fine. Ish. I suppose. Except that by doing so you often lose the “comedy” bit of the “tragicomedy” that Chekhov says he’s written. Which is kind of fine, too – I’m all for a bit of appropriation when it’s deliberate. But in these instances, it never really seems to be. It just kind of happens because of the disparities between the two cultures and the way that the transitioning between one and the other is realised.
Perhaps, this just partly stems from some rather general ideas I have about Russia and about Scotland, which can, embarrassingly, be boiled down to “they’re both colder than the South of England, and each has a reputation for a lot more spirits being drunk there”. Crass though that may be, though, it strikes me as a better rationale for a “realist” representation than: “Well, these characters are all middle class, so let’s call the Redgraves (this thought goes back to (I think it was) Summerfolk at the NT) and do the whole thing with cut-glass English accents and lots of fine china”.
(as an aside: there’s almost a parallel study that might be done on the casting of alcoholic drinks-of-choice in plays. In Russia – vodka, in Scotland – whisky, in the north of England – bitter, in France – vin rouge, in the south of England – Chardonnay or lager, depending on milieu, etc. and what these intend, connote and perhaps the sorts of drunkenness that are supposed to result from them)
Similarly, I recently saw the British premiere of Romanian Gabriel Pintilei’s Elevator which transposed the action to Stockwell. In an otherwise hugely credible production, this was the one element which really didn’t work. After all, the play was at once an examination of quite specific things about two specifically Romanian teenagers and a metaphor for the way that their society was falling apart. The specific facts about teenagers in Stockwell are quite different as are the ways in which Stockwell/London/Britain might be considered to be falling apart. Given the (unspoken) centrality of Romania’s still hugely culturally influential Catholic church, I wondered – in the interests of “realism” – if the play were to be transposed geographically at all, it might not have been better served with a more Catholic backdrop. Liverpool, perhaps, or maybe Cork or somewhere? Or perhaps this is too literal-minded and needn’t be a consideration. Except in this case, not knowing the play was from Romania might well have wrong-footed some (much, even) of what the teenagers were saying, the rationales behind it, and thus our understanding of the characters.
In that case, however, it was nothing to do with the casting per se, since it was changes to the script which established Stockwell as the location. On the other hand, if the changes to the script had specified Liverpool, Cork or even Romania, it might have felt problematic if the cast had retained their estuary accents.
All this has moved us a bit away from the area I wanted to discuss in relation to accents, and feeding back from accents, to “the right” physical casting.
After all, for the stereotypes I mention some paragraphs above to work, there needs to be some sort of commonly accepted pool of stereotypes for a director to draw on. Annoyingly, if you’re brought up here, a map of Britain matching regional accent to an accepted set of stock characteristics might as well be stamped on your DNA. I won’t list them here, but you’ll have a version if you’re British, and will have probably heard about a few of them if you’re not.
I shan’t bother to point out, either, that the shifting emphases as to how the map functions depending on where on it you come from does much to demonstrate how ludicrously far from being the “objective” document it often seems to be presented as.
In much the same way as only an aging *white* director would think to use a black actor to signify “otherness”, I find it unlikely that a local Birmingham theatre company, for example, would find as much mirth in giving a stock comic figure a Birmingham accent – as much of the rest of the country might (actually, they’re probably give him/her a Black Country accent and find it hilarious, while much of the rest of the country failed to discern the difference, but there we go).
CONCLUSION (of sorts - and I think there's a bit of slippage here, so do comment)
My point then (finally! At last!), is that, rather than by way of any sort of rigorous political/ideological/ethical thinking, much of our way of staging things seems dependent of a widely shared set of crude stereotypes or positionings of class, region, race, sexuality, age and appearance. And that, even more tragically, even in the 21st century, these are still so ingrained in our culture that it’s often seen as “being a bit radical” to “cast against type”. It’s why “regional” playwrights and/or theatres feel the urge to create scripts that specifically dictate accent and location – because otherwise, thanks to the overwhelmingly normative way in which British theatre still seems to stage the world (or at best, that playwrights fear that their plays might be staged), they’d be RP. It’s why “BME” (bleugh, horrible term) writers and theatre companies feel compelled to write stories with *BME* characters and stage them thus.
Perhaps this is also why blogs about casting seem to draw such angry comments: because casting in theatres (theatres, for heaven’s sake) can all too often feel like it takes place on all the faultlines of British society. Where people are valued monetarily on the basis of their appearance, rather than their ability. Where “the regions” are taken to be a divergence from “the norm”, as are non-middle class accents. Where “black” still basically means “other” and where homosexuality still seems to be an issue.
This, in short, is why I find it problematic when an adult who writes about theatre for a living is happy to say “unconventional or less-than-ideal casting”; who is “eager to accept whomever in the role and think there’s something wonderful about surrendering to an actor who looks nothing like the character” only in “more stylised works”. Not least because theatre’s “realism” often looks a lot more prescriptive than reality and because far too much of the time, when someone says “unconventional”, the conventions they seem to be imagining are some of the most right-wing imaginable.
* (Re: photo) Not really.