When she was a recently qualified teacher in 1950s London, my mother saw Lawrence Olivier in the title role of Shakespeare's Othello. To play a Moorish general in the Venetian army, Olivier 'blacked up', applying dark make-up to achieve the appearance of an African.
In those far-off times such a performance was the norm. Whatever slant a white actor might have brought to his portrayal of Othello's race as opposed to the rest of the character, the role was simply one of the standard great roles of Shakespearian theatre for any actor at the top of his profession.
What a difference a few decades make. Because of the association between an actor blacking up and blackface parody acts, a white actor playing Othello is now an extremely rare occurrence. Patrick Stewart played the role as a white Othello among an otherwise all-black cast, but that production was sufficiently unusual to receive widespread press coverage during its run.
This week's annoyance with Peter Kay's portrayal of a transsexual has brought the issue of the suitability of an actor to depict a group to which they do not belong to the fore. I have often heard mutterings from within our community when transsexual characters are played by non-transsexual actors or actresses: usually along the lines that there should have been some effort to find a transsexual person for the role. While I would warmly welcome the appearance of some openly transsexual performers I have to admit to finding some discomfort with the idea that transsexual roles should be reserved only for transsexual actors and actresses.
I think it is necessary to examine for a moment what a member of the acting profession does for a living. They portray characters other than their own. A good actor can show you anyone in the world without relying on make-up or props, if a young man can show you an old woman as part of an improvisational monologue then why should he not also be able to show you a transsexual? The key is in the portrayal, if the performer has made the effort to depict the character with accuracy and respect then their performance is to be applauded rather than deplored.
A good example of this can be found in Coronation Street's Hayley Cropper. Julie Hesmondhalgh - a natal female - plays this role admirably as just another female resident of the Street whose status as a post-op transsexual is never lampooned or otherwise taken advantage of. A perfect contrast to Kay's McQueen character or the Little Britain duo who are milking the situation for laughs no matter how they are achieved.
I sincerely hope that one day I will see a non-transsexual comedian create a transsexual character who manages to be funny without crossing this line. I think this is possible, after all there is much to laugh about in our world without laughing at our expense even if some of us sometimes take it all a little too seriously.
As to Othello, I doubt I'll see a white actor in the lead role within my lifetime. I consider this to be a shame not because I have an especial desire to see one, but because that we are not ready to see an actor doing his job of depicting people other than himself with dignity and respect due to discomfort about his race indicates to me that we still have a very long way to go in that particular direction.