The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 29.0211 Wednesday, 30 May 2018
Date: May 28, 2018 at 1:14:08 PM EDT
Subject: Sunday Funny
Brad Berens, Ph.D.
Chief Strategy Officer, Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg
Principal, Big Digital Idea Consulting, Inc.
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 29.0209 Tuesday, 29 May 2018
Date: May 28, 2018 at 8:11:36 AM EDT
Subject: From TLS - 'Shakespeare’s sisters'
May 15, 2018
Liverpool Everyman, until July 10
By Marchella Ward
It’s a dark night in London sometime after 1660 and Charles II is sitting in his royal box waiting for the curtain to rise. He is full of anticipation – his favourite boy actor, Edward Kynaston, is playing the role of the queen – but he is also becoming anxious. The performance ought to have started by now, and the actors seem to be taking an unusually long time to prepare themselves. Eventually the Master of the Company approaches the royal box. The play could not begin on time, he says, because “the Queen was not shav’d yet”. Charles shifts awkwardly in his seat. From the mutterings around him he can make out a phrase that by now he knows all too well: “unnatural vice”. He begins to wonder whether Edward Kynaston really ought to have been cast in the role of the queen at all.
That evening weighed heavily on Charles’s mind. His luxuriant penchant for all things theatrical and in particular for watching young men play female roles had earned him a reputation among his subjects. The theatres that he had only recently reopened were already being accused of immorality, of promoting the sexualized gazing of men at men, and of staging queens too often reminiscent of “queans” (early modern slang for a person of low sexual morals). In order to keep the theatres open, Charles had to rid them of their reputation for homosexuality, and by 1662 he had licensed the appearance of female actors on the English stage.
The first female actor to tread the boards appeared in a production of Othello at the Vere Street Theatre, now the London School of Economics’s real tennis court. Precisely who this woman was remains a matter of some debate (Margaret Hughes and Ann Marshall seem the two most plausible candidates among scholars of the theatre of this period), but Pepys would later register in his diary the effect that these women actors had on him. The tone of his diary entry has become typical of reviews of women actors ever since. He has very little to say about their performance, focusing instead on their looks and calling Hughes “a mighty pretty woman”. The first appearance of a female Desdemona was presumed to be so shocking to audiences that Thomas Jordan was commissioned to write a prologue, preparing them for what they would witness. Jordan clarifies that the casting choice is not a gimmick, and has been made in good taste: “we have intents to civilize the stage”.
That the first female actor makes her appearance in the role of Desdemona should not come as a surprise to modern audiences of the play. Othello has always been at the centre of debates about the relationship between the identity of the actor and that of the character because of its title role. Although Restoration audiences quickly bought into the idea that female roles ought to be played by female actors, it would be another two centuries before the role of Othello was played by a black actor. When Othello first opened in 1604, it starred Richard Burbage in blackface make-up, and when Laurence Olivier played him at the National Theatre in 1964, very little had changed, though the role had been played at an off-West End venue by the African American actor Ira Aldridge in 1833. Aldridge was the exception that proved the rule. In fact in the 1800s, the role of Othello was more commonly played by women than by black men. Women such as Miss Percy Knowles and Mrs Selby apparently “enacted the part of the valiant Moor to the satisfaction of a numerous audience”.
Gemma Bodinetz’s production of Othello at the Liverpool Everyman maintains the tradition of Othello firsts. Golda Rosheuvel is the first woman of colour to play the title role in a major production in the UK, though Debra Ann Byrd played it at the Harlem Shakespeare Festival in New York in 2013. Unlike Byrd, who played a male Othello, Rosheuvel carefully crafts a female figure for Shakespeare’s general, engaging her in a straightforwardly lesbian relationship with Emily Hughes’s Desdemona, complete with swapped pronouns and a jumpsuit military uniform. The effect of this casting choice is simple but effective. Shakespeare’s play is full of assaults on Othello’s masculinity (“are you a man?”), and in this production the audience are invited to take these insults literally. When Iago (Patrick Brennan) soliloquizes that “Cassio’s a proper man” (and therefore a more likely suitor for Desdemona) in comparison with Othello, it is not racism that we hear between these lines, but homophobia. Rosheuvel’s Othello becomes part of a Shakespearean sisterhood that includes not only Lady Macbeth (a comparison made explicit when a hand-washing basin is brought onto the stage) but Rosalind, Kate, Hermia, Imogen and all the other characters who struggle in a Shakespearean world that is prescriptive about their sex and sexuality.
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