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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: August ::
Re: Colour-Blind Casting
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1552  Monday, 4 August 2003

[1]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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        Date:   Friday, 1 Aug 2003 16:09:14 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1547 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

[2]     From:   Haddon Judson <
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        Date:   Friday, 1 Aug 2003 18:32:57 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1547 Re: Colour-Blind Casting


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Friday, 1 Aug 2003 16:09:14 +0100
Subject: 14.1547 Re: Colour-Blind Casting
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1547 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

I just saw "Edward II" at the London Shakespeare's Globe a couple of
days ago, which I was reviewing for "Research Opportunities in
Renaissance Drama".  It was a very powerful "traditional practices"
production - using costumes and methods that would have been available
to Renaissance actors - and, of course, the female parts were played by
men. Chu Omambala, who played Queen Isabella, was both male and black
(with a white actor as his son), but I had no problem accepting him as a
very convincing Queen Isabella, and he gave a fine performance, being
one of the many actors in the production who was excellently cast and
who performed well.

From the point of view of "realistic" casting, I much preferred
Omambala's Isabella to (for example) Mark Rylance's comic and
unconvincing parodic impersonation of a woman as Olivia in last year's
"Twelfth Night".  Omambala established his femininity by subtle gestures
and did not make an exaggerated attempt to disguise his masculine voice,
while both Rylance and Richard Glaves (who played Lady Margaret in
"Edward II") gave camped up performances with distinctly false falsetto
voices and parodic imitations of female walking and movement.
Ironically Omambala's unashamedly masculine voice and less gendered
movements were a more convincing representation of a woman, in my
opinion, than Rylance's and Glaves's more obvious attempts at female
impersonation which teetered on the brink of stereotypical comic
impersonations of men pretending to be women (too near Edna Everage for
my tastes).

Of course this brings up all sorts of other issues.  Should colour-blind
casting be allowed in Globe productions which are trying to recreate
Renaissance performance methods (where there were presumably no black
actors in the Renaissance in the same way that there were no women)?
Are men playing women more acceptable than blacks playing whites in
Renaissance plays because such things were done in the original
productions of these texts?  I would suggest that the Globe performances
are a compromise between modern and Renaissance in any case, as seemed
clear from the symbolic synchronised stamping dance that was used to
replace the usual battle scene (alarums off, according to the original
stage directions) and which was obviously introduced because modern
audiences used to cinematic realism would not be convinced by the four
or five ragged foils that represented "realistic" stage battles in
Shakespeare's day, so that an overtly symbolic and non-naturalistic
battle is more acceptable to modern audiences than a failed attempt at
realism.  Given these compromises, why not have a black actor as a
French queen, or - as the Globe is doing in two productions this year -
an all-female company instead of an all-male one, but retain the other
trappings of Renaissance-style performance?  It is interesting to note
that the "traditional practices" productions are by far the best
productions that the Globe has produced, and are so not because they
have pretensions to historical accuracy in reproducing Renaissance
performances (or at least not only because of this), but principally
because they work brilliantly as 21st century productions of Renaissance
plays.

Of course, I won't change Sam Small's mind - or that of others like him
who consider such practices anathema - but I welcome the diversity of
actors and styles that are available in theatre.  "Edward II" was yet
another powerful argument, in my mind, in favour of casting against
expectations of race and gender where this is appropriate to the
production's own vision.  I would also note that as a 21st century
heterosexual male, I had no problems accepting the male actors as female
characters for the length of the production, while at the same time
being fully aware that they were not female actors (contrary to the
claims of some theorists that male actors playing female parts would
necessarily be regarded as centres of homoerotic display).  The
homosexuality in this production was clearly present in Edward's
physical passion for Gaveston, not so clearly present in Mortimer's
embraces with Isabella, since - for me at least - it was the character
not the actor which was the source of the predominant gender identity of
the bodies on stage.  Obviously transvestite boy actors allow an
audience to see and respond to homoerotic themes, if that is what they
wish to or are inclined to do, but they do not unquestionably enforce
such a response.  The sexual charge of seeing a male actor playing a
woman being embraced by a man was no different than seeing (for example)
Jane Lapotaire as Gertrude being embraced by her Claudius, since I
didn't see Omambala in overtly sexual terms, but did not see Jane
Lapotaire in such a way either.  The fact that I didn't find either of
these people sexually attractive was more important in determining my
response to their sexual activities on stage than the fact that one was
only pretending to be female.  This lack of any sense of an erotic
charge between actors and audience certainly didn't damage my belief in
the relationships, or my enjoyment of the plots, in either of these
productions.

Thomas Larque.
"Shakespeare and His Critics"
http://shakespearean.org.uk

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Haddon Judson <
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Date:           Friday, 1 Aug 2003 18:32:57 -0400
Subject: 14.1547 Re: Colour-Blind Casting
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1547 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

Brian Willis:

"I think that those who wish to protect these roles for the historical
"realism" of their skin color need to take a hard look at their real
motivations."

I concur with Brian Willis...

I can visualize Larry Fishborn Playing George Washington or Abe
Lincoln.  I can visualize Richard Pryor playing General Robert E. Lee.
I can visualize Rodney Dangerfield playing Richard Pryor playing General
Robert E. Lee but I can not understand Denzel Washington playing the
character he played in the Pelican Brief unless it was to make a
politically correct statement.

Denzel Washington playing that character was, to me, a form of reverse
racism to make a politically correct statement which degraded the film,
the novel and Denzel Washington.  Racism in and of itself has no place
in the theater or film.

Sincerely,
Haddon (Hadd) Judson

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