Sunday, 27 March 2011

A suitable candidate for the role

    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.


  1. I'm thinking the likes of Peter Kay only know one way of doing things and that is to ridicule. If you look at any comedian they do the same but most do it with respect. Peter Kay lacks respect for others. Having a white actor playing the role of Othello in an otherwise all black cast would seem very appropriate don't you think? In such circumstances no-one is taking the mickey.

    Shirley Anne xxx

  2. rape tyke, hardly surprising that this is the sort of anagram of the creepy name!

    What is more worrying is the deep rooted acceptance in the media of such an obnoxious idea in the first place. The media hold the front line in our battle and have lost the plot.

    Caroline xxx

  3. Haven't both Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo both played Othello in black face?

    I think the difference is that Othello is is considered a serious work of classical art, as opposed to a far less serious parody.

    As long as the work is serious, and the actor puts in a serious effort, I have no objection. When Vanessa Redgrave portrayed Dr. Renee Richards, initially I was non-plussed. I would have preferred a natal male to play the roll, but when I saw the passion she brought to the role, I thought she did an admirable job of portraying a male to female transsexual.

    Melissa XX

  4. There is an argument that a natal female is the best person to play an MtF transsexual because we desire to be seen completely as women, so to be played by a woman playing the role as a woman is completely on-message. But I don't fully buy it because I still take the view that an actor or actress should be able to ply their craft in any role.

  5. I'd like to see Peter Kay play Old Yeller. Or a cow in a remake of Bonanza.

    As I recall, when a white man plays a black man, he usually adopts a faux welsh accent. What's all that about? We should be told.

  6. For It Is Written: all faux accents end up sounding Welsh. Except faux Welsh accents, which end up sounding Pakistani.

  7. On race and increasingly on sexuality the audience can see the intent of the performer and if there's any underlying malice, racism, homophobia.

    Of course we're still a while away from that.