Staging History in The Lehman Trilogy

I’ve been thinking about how the structure of a play itself can reflect its historiographical interests– conscious or otherwise. An interesting case in point is The Lehman Trilogy, adapted by Ben Power from an Italian play by Stefano Massini, and now playing at the National Theatre. It tells the story of the rise of the Lehman Brothers firm, from the arrival of the founding brothers in America in the 1840s to its dissolution during the crash of 2008. It is performed by only three actors– Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles– who between them take on dozens of roles– all of which, through this casting, become refractions of and variations on the original brother they played.

This multi-role casting lends cohesion and continuity to what is otherwise a sprawling story, generations passing on and passing off the torch to the next. It allows us to feel some attachment to later-generation characters who are not as fully developed as their forebears. I was surprised to learn that this was not the case with Massini’s original play: either Powers or director Sam Mendes decided to reduce the original large cast to just three. I think it works artistically for these reasons, but it also is a huge historiographical shift. Instead of an epic story with a cast of dozens, reflecting the sprawl of history, it becomes the story of three great men.

I mean this not in the sense that they are necessarily good or awesome, but that they were powerful and influential– the sense intended in the ‘great man’ theory, or great man history, a historiographical concept first attributed to Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s. It’s a succinct idea, in his words: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

By filtering the entire history of the Lehman Brothers through three actors– and attributing to them the invention of a variety of essential concepts, like that of brokers between farms and manufacturers, government-subsidized building projects, and other economic concepts I only barely understand– they become (literally, in terms of onstage imagery) the only people who can or do make history. The modern banking system is shaped by them and no one else.

This also places the emphasis on the man part of great man. Unsurprisingly, there are a fraction as many female characters as male characters, and none are very important. And because the way the female characters are depicted by these male actors– with exaggerated falsettos and coy expressions– the audience on the night I saw the performance laughed, without fail, every time a female character entered or spoke. The very presence of women in history became laughable, their very speech a joke. Naturally, the casting means that anyone who isn’t white (admittedly not many people in the world of banking, but the Lehman Brothers do get their start dealing with plantations, and there is an oft-referenced but never depicted black overseer character) also cannot exist.

While it can feel inevitable that historical stories center on men in particular– they were the ones doing everything, how could women be involved?– the case of a play like The Lehman Trilogy draws attention to the fact that such assumptions really are just assumptions, not givens. The extreme narrowing of focus forces attention onto everything that is squeezed out of the three-man frame, a reminder of all the stories that this play– and so many histories– leave out. Though artistically successful, and buoyed by three splendid performances, the decision to make three white men the center of history is not the only way to tell this, or any other story.

 

OSF 2018 Part 2: How Do You Solve A Problem Like White Men?

(part one)

None of the program notes or publicity materials for this season’s shows use the phrase ‘toxic masculinity,’ but the concept saturates the season even so. Across the plays, the rage and resentment of white male characters is the corrosive force that causes communities to crumble. And always it is aimless, baseless violence, unmoored from any sense of proportion or logic– this season takes, in short, the opposite of Hollywood’s favored anti-hero tack, asking not what pain caused this anger, but instead whether there is any remedy for the free-floating rage of men who think the world should, by rights, be theirs.

Jud Fry (Michael Sharon), Oklahoma!‘s only true villain, is also the only (apparently) straight, white man amongst the named characters: the peddler Ali Hakim (here stripped of his clownishly racist trappings, not least through being played by Barzin Akhavan, who is actually Persian) is bisexual, Ado Andy’s father is now his mother, the local Federal Marshal and Will Parker are both black. His toxicity therefore becomes linked, just as it so often is today, with thwarted privilege: not merely that he cannot bear losing to or being thought less than Curly, but that he cannot bear losing to a black woman. He cannot conceive of the idea that he has caused Laurey’s fear of him by lurking outside her window at night. He is someone who has learned no outlet for his disappointment and frustration except violence– violence that will turn, as the noose he keeps in his shed implies, either against others or against himself. But by the end of his first full scene, it is clear he has chosen others. 

Oklahoma! ends with the frankly shocking implication that once they have made that decision– once they have decided that harming other people is the only way to soothe their own hurt– men like Jud must be permanently removed from the community one way or another if that community is to peacefully survive. It’s a radical and perhaps disturbing thought. Directors often want to resist the idea that Jud is irredeemable, and to see the ending as written as an awkward oversight in the rush to a happy ending. But it clearly seems to be what Rodgers and Hammerstein intended to suggest. Laurey’s kindness only made him feel entitled to her; Aunt Eller’s praise of his work can’t undo his past resentments. Curly mocks him, but mockery doesn’t justify threats of rape and violence. Recent productions (including, apparently, the one now bound for Broadway) have tried to play up sympathy for Jud and point a more skeptical finger at Curly and the eleventh-hour mock trial that acquits him. But that’s a reading Rauch’s production undercuts in part by casting Tatiana Wechsler as Curly. Just as contemporary political discourse makes Jud’s violent threat seem all the more urgent and frightening, who today (as I discussed in the previous post) is going to argue in favor of turning a black woman over to the police?

In Othello, it’s masculinity in all races that is, perhaps, too destructive to endure, which leaves the tragedy fittingly answerless. This production, also directed by Rauch, is not really one that has any answers for the suggestion that the play is racist and sexist as much as it is about those things, but set alongside Oklahoma!, it paints an intriguing picture of the ways the corrosive anger of white men eats away at communities that might otherwise remain whole. Unlike Oklahoma!, however, Iago’s power lies not only in his own toxicity, but in spreading it to others: Cassio (Derek Garza), drunk by Iago’s engineering, spews Islamophobic mumblings at Barzin Akhavan’s Muslim Montano and readily mocks Bianca (whom he otherwise seems to like) at Iago’s urging; Othello (Chris Butler), of course, murders his wife. The question that makes Othello so uneasy today is whether Iago is merely revealing the darkness that was already present in these men– in Othello’s case, a frankly racist implication, given the stereotypical associations between black men and violence– or if his power is to explode the niggling fears and petty weaknesses we all have into something strong and uncontrollable enough to destroy these men. But whether he engenders the spark of violence or only fans it, the seething envy and obsessive hatred of Danforth Comin’s disturbingly changeable Iago is the center from which the play’s darkness springs, the force that drags Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, Bianca, and Emilia– all of them, in Rauch’s production, people of color– into a spiral of destruction, the women just collateral damage in a crusade whose true purpose he refuses, at the last, to reveal.

In one of the more intriguing cases of cross-play casting this season, Comins also plays Jakob, a 17th century Dutch fur trader in Manahatta, a new play by Mary Kathryn Nagle. It’s not hard to imagine the destructive role white men play in a play partly about the Dutch settlement of New York and the native Lenape people who encounter them. Unlike The Way The Mountain Moved, the season’s other play to touch on interactions between Native Americans and white settlers, Manahatta doesn’t believe in good intentions. Jakob, like Iago, comes to represent how the most brutal betrayals come from the people you thought you could trust– from the white men who were supposed to be different than the rest. The play’s parallel plot takes place in 21st century New York City, and Comins’ character there is altogether more open, and might provide a spark of hope for a more harmonious future: he expresses a willingness to learn to be better, and actually follows through with it. But then again, it’s 2008, and he’s an executive at Lehman Brothers. There are all kinds of ways to ruin lives.

OSF 2018 Part 1: The Promise of the West

This year, several of the shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival begin by thanking not only the subscribers and members in the audience, but the Native American tribes who once lived on this land in Southern Oregon, the Shasta and the Takelma people. It’s fitting that the Festival’s commitment to inclusion has at last brought them closer to home, to considering the role of their home state in a long history of injustice. But onstage, this season’s plays that look westward propose a different, intriguing vision of what the American West can mean: they propose a lost, brief moment of promise. There was an instant, these plays suggest, when everything might have been different– when westward expansion might have been the beginning of something new, not the repetition of something brutal and as old as the idea of America itself.

This idea finds cheerful but surprisingly nuanced expression in Bill Rauch’s production of Oklahoma!, which changes the genders of two of the leads to turn Laurey and Curly into a lesbian couple (played by Royer Bockus and Tatiana Wechsler, respectively) and cowboy Will Parker’s (Jordan Barbour) beau into Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens), a boy who just can’t say no. Lyrics and pronouns are altered accordingly throughout, but nothing else is changed, including the other Oklahomans’ cheerful acceptance of these young couples– and of Aunt Eller (played by Bobbi Charlton and is not, according to Rauch, a trans performer playing a cis character, but a trans character). Wechsler and Barbour are both black, and the ensemble is diverse as well, including Native American actor Román Zaragoza (who, delightfully, also played a gay man in the early American West last season).

This idyllic setting is described by Rauch as “an alternate utopian community that reflects progress and acceptance for our time.” It is, obviously, a fantasy– though no more a fantasy than the original Oklahoma!, a vision of Western expansion that saw the fundamental conflict over the land as one between ranchers and farmers. Rauch’s fantasy of radical acceptance, however, lends a very different tenor to the show’s probing of the odd liminal space inhabited by people who will “soon be living in a brand-new state”– but aren’t yet. That in-between status that allows for Curly’s abrupt and highly dubious trial for murdering his rival Judd, a sense that they aren’t really, fully bound by the laws of the country they’re soon to be part of. For now, they can still handle things their own way– and when the crime they’re adjudicating is a black lesbian murdering a white man in self-defense, given what we know about the country they’ll be joining, it suddenly seems for the best that Curly isn’t hauled off to answer to an official United States judge and jury.

Idris Goodwin’s The Way The Mountain Moved, a gorgeously messy new play, does not tie off its threads so neatly. Exploring the intersection of various characters in the deserts of what will someday be Utah, Goodwin’s west is diverse and chaotic: Mormons, Mexicans, scientists, and soldiers collide and cross paths and force one another to question their purposes and desires. There is violence, and death: the play begins with a Native American man (Christopher Salazar) insisting he cannot continue to help guide the military forces of westward exploration despite his initial promise to do so, and ends with a woman (Shyla Lefner) clutching a rifle and insisting that only the weapons of the enemy can save them. And yet, as director May Adrales writes in the program, it is “a moment in history where America might have changed its course.” In the railroad he has been sent to help plan, a botanist (Rex Young) sees hope for a country united, for the triumph of the scientific rationality that argues that all races are equal, all cultures nuanced and worthy of study and respect. A pair of runaway slaves (Rodney Gardiner and Christiana Clark) steadfastly maintain their Mormon faith despite their church’s tacit tolerance of slavery, and use that faith as a bridge of understanding. A mother chooses loss rather than vengeance on the Native American tribe that may or may not have kidnapped her son. A soldier is transformed by an experience with the wilderness that he cannot explain. Suppose, Goodwin seems to ask, these people had shaped the future of the West?

Both of these plays primarily focus on white and black people– the play of the season that is centered on the Native American experience is partly set (fittingly) in Oklahoma, but partly tells the history of the Lenape in New York, and focuses on a much earlier stage of violent conquest. Perhaps the potential alternate future that these plays tentatively suggest is irresponsibly naive, and only able to be imagined when the Native American perspective is erased. Perhaps it’s impossible to do better the second time, once a country’s hands are stained with slavery and blood. I find myself thinking of the common liberal refrain these days, that this– (insert absurd and cruel action by our government)– isn’t who we are. Which can seem laughable: hasn’t xenophobic cruelty long been exactly who America is, exactly what it’s done? But maybe that statement is really a way of saying, this isn’t who we want to be. We can be better. And by that token, can it be a good thing to look backwards and say, we could have been better?

And yet, tellingly, both of these plays are set in a moment before the land they take place on was American land. It is, as Adrales and the characters of Oklahoma express, a mere instant of in-between– just a flash before, in becoming the United States, they become the worst of the United States, too. But first, maybe, there was a moment when it could have been otherwise.

What are we trying to censor in Shakespeare?

Between the Twitter discussion surrounding the Globe’s Shakespeare and Censorship event (which I fully recognize could not have captured the nuance of the speakers’ actual talks) and a conversation that came up during a plenary on teaching Shakespeare at this year’s BritGrad conference, I’ve been grappling with the question of what we’re talking about when we’re arguing for or against “censoring” Shakespeare (and that’s not even getting into the obviously biased moral weight of the use of that word). I’d like to try to define my take on this debate with a series of questions, because I think so many things are getting lumped under one umbrella, it’s almost impossible to actually discuss the problem.

What do we mean by censorship? 

First and foremost, two issues I think are actually completely separate have been lumped under one category. First, there’s the kind of censorship undertaken by the Bowdlers in The Family Shakespeare, which expurgated lines and passages that were deemed inappropriate for women or children by the standards of the day. Then, there is the kind advocated by Mark Rylance a few years ago: quietly removing out-of-context anti-Semitic remarks, in his specific example, or other instances of racism, sexism, ableism, or whatever else that were unremarkable in the period but have a different resonance now.

These are not, to my mind, the same issue, though I think the people who group them both under the banner of “censorship” would like them to be. The question comes down, for me, to one of harm: no one is going to be hurt by a bawdy joke, the word ‘damn,’ or a reference to suicide (all things the Bowdlers cut). Casually using “Jew” as a synonym for “a disgusting idiot,” or “Ethiope” as a synonym for “dark-haired and ugly” is startling and harmful, particularly because the text provides no space for unpacking, undermining, or lingering on these words: they just pass by.

But those who cry “censorship” would surely say that it’s essential we confront these ugly parts of Shakespeare.

Who are we asking to confront these things? 

Who is unaware that the past was sexist and racist and ableist and a bunch of other things? Who actually needs to be reminded that there were periods in history (including, you know, the present) where aspects of one’s identity were so hated that the words themselves were insults? Probably mostly people who don’t hold any of the identities that Shakespeare is casually demeaning. The assumed audience therefore becomes one that is white, able-bodied, not Jewish or Muslim, probably not poor, probably male, and many other intersections of privilege. People who don’t need to learn the lesson that they have been and still are often dehumanized by the dominant culture are doubly  alienated, both by the assumption that they too need to ‘confront’ something they already know, and by being forced to confront it for the benefit of the more privileged members of the audience.

Adults, at least, can decide they don’t want to put themselves in that position. I don’t have to go see The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew. But what about educational Shakespeare, where this conversation often gets especially vehement? Maybe a school trip to Othello can be a learning experience about racism for white children. But what burden is being placed on the black children in that class, both to witness and then presumably have to discuss and become the emblem of a lesson they already know too well? How completely alienating, to be forced to publicly grapple with the fact that the writer you are going to see because he is The Greatest English Writer in fact casually but explicitly demeans you and your identity, to realize in front of all your classmates that apparently Shakespeare’s supposed universality doesn’t include you.

Maybe this is an important lesson to learn. But I argue that it’s a lesson to be learned on one’s own terms, not by surprise at a school matinee– and certainly not a lesson one learns before being forced to continue studying Shakespeare anyway.

What is this confrontation supposed to empower us to do, if not reject Shakespeare– or parts of Shakespeare– if we so choose? 

Every generation re-evaluates the art it has received and decides whether or not it is still worthy and relevant to their interests, but it feels like we’re in a moment of particularly intense scrutiny right now. Maybe it’s important to remind Shakespeare-lovers that much of Shakespeare’s work is deeply problematic. But if we’re going to force people to confront Shakespeare’s problems, then what is the point if we’re not allowed to then say, “Actually, you’re right, this is incredibly offensive, hopelessly out of date, and I want to walk out of this play/stop studying this subject/decide never to watch, read, or produce Shakespeare again.” I think that’s a legitimate response, but not the one, I suspect, that people who are most precious about censoring Shakespeare would support. And in the context of a school or even just being in the middle of a performance, it’s not actually one that’s allowed (at least, not without causing a scene).

I personally still think Shakespeare’s plays are worth doing (otherwise this degree would be a massive waste of time). But how can we negotiate the terms under which we do them in order to do more good than harm? If we have decided to do Shakespeare, how can we do the most welcoming Shakespeare possible?

I completely understand the impulse to say that it’s equally problematic to whitewash Shakespeare and pretend he never wrote anything bad. But I have to ask again: who exactly are you trying to educate that in that instance? People who experience some form of oppression already know they are and have been oppressed. I can assure you that anyone who loves Shakespeare and is a member of a group he demeans has already grappled with that fact. Maybe they want to come to the theatre and watch a playwright they generally like and also not hear their identities casually derided in order to shock and educate others.

I can’t help but feel that an insistence on retaining the most casually bigoted parts of Shakespeare, feelings be damned, is an insistence on maintaining Shakespeare’s air of exclusivity. Such a producer doesn’t care who he is alienating or insulting: Shakespeare, a dead guy, matters more than the living people who might encounter this play. The privileged audience members who need to learn a lesson matter more than the less privileged audience members, the ones whose actual, lived identities are being treated as no more than a thought experiment.

Plays like Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew raise their own sets of problems in this respect. Their offensiveness is baked into their story and structure, and while I think we should ask more questions than we do about why we not only continue to produce them, but continue to produce them a lot, there are cases that are so much simpler. Despite all the furor that followed his comments, Mark Rylance was talking about quietly amending individual words. It’s not that hard. It makes a big difference.

Yes, We Need Critics (A Predictable Reply)

The city of Chicago now only has one full-time theatre critic. In the wake of this news, the Chicago Reader published a piece with the (presumably) intentionally click-baity title “Do we really need theater critics?” (yes, I am taking the bait). Though the column ends on a tentative yes, it spends a lot more time in the middle arguing for no. For one thing, artists don’t care: “From their perspective, critics are unreliable, arts reporters are unreliable, and they’ve found that they can drive ticket sales on social media.”

Even the concluding rallying cry in favor of critics is depressingly pragmatic: “They’re an historical record; they have value for advancing the careers of playwrights, directors, and actors, and for theater companies applying for grants.”

If all people think theatre reviews are for is generating ad copy and pull quotes for grants, no wonder they don’t mind if critics disappear. Social media’s better at both of those things, anyway. But that’s also not actually why theatre criticism matters.

If theatre artists aren’t scared of losing critics, they are scared of losing relevance. Does theatre matter anymore? Why are audience numbers falling? Is there anything live performance can do in the face of endless entertainment options you can access from the comfort of your own home? If theatre wants to reclaim a place in the mainstream of American culture, critics are how that will happen. They are the people who articulate the relevance of the work the theatre does to what is going on in the world, who explain why these local, unscaleable pieces of art are part of a bigger, broader conversation.

In 2016, after the Chicago Reader revealed years of systematic abuse of young actresses by the leadership of the local Profiles Theatre, Christopher Piatt, one of the co-authors of the exposé, wrote a mea culpa. An actress he contact for the story said she assumed the press must have known what was going on, given the subject matter the company continually presented. Yes, Piatt agrees in the column, they should have. He writes, “The city’s theater press corps salivated for a nonstop cavalcade of brooding antiheroes, vacant serial killers, misogynist dickheads, Lolita-chasing lotharios, and literally somehow almost the entire canon of Neil LaBute protagonists—often opposite a scantily clad, nubile female acting pupil—while never directly or strongly questioning what [predatory artistic director] Cox might be telegraphing about his worldview in a completely nonsubliminal way.” This is another potential power of the full-time critic, though one that was not used in this instance. And it is a power that depends on full-time, or close to full-time work: the ability to see a company or an artist’s shows consistently enough over a long enough period of time to notice patterns– and, of course, to have a recognition from their editors that their job is not just consumer reviews, but to report, in a sense, on the state of the local industry.

This sense of continuity is what smaller markets in particular need, and what they are least likely to have. There’s plenty of coverage of Broadway and London. Critics will swoop into the regions if there’s a show that seems destined for the commercial pipeline. But smaller cities are having their own conversations. Artists in smaller markets know this already, obviously. But a strong local critical corps is how that conversation gets lifted beyond individual shows or groups of friends talking amongst each other.

So let the bloggers do it, you may say. I love bloggers– I am a blogger and have been a blogger, after all. And I’ve been a freelance critic. And so I know that it’s very difficult to do this kind of broad-scope work without the time and resources to see a whole lot of shows. Like all the time. Like as if it’s your job, say. And it is a job, one that’s fundamentally based in the belief that theatre is good and wonderful and important, and thus worth thinking deeply about.

If you want theatre to matter, critics have to matter, too.

 

“I defy you, [script]!” (or, changing Shakespeare)

There is (and has been for a while) a tendency in Shakespeare performance which implies that the more miserable your female characters end up, the more feminist your production is. To wit, Hero should be all but dragged to the altar at the end of Much Ado About Nothing, Jessica in The Merchant of Venice should seem like she’s made a terrible mistake, and no one in Twelfth Night should want the partner they’ve got. And, of course, we must keep on physically and psychologically abusing poor old Katherine Minola, just in case.

The opposite pattern– to try and smooth over the endings that are more obviously unsettling, like Measure for Measure and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, feels much less common these days. But that’s the angle I found myself thinking of while watching the Globe’s current production of Two Noble Kinsmen, which does its best to make the bizarre subplot of the Jailer’s Daughter, who goes mad for love of one of the titular kinsmen, as sweet and palatable as possible. As with so much in that play, the intended tone of her plot’s resolution is difficult to discern: a local doctor commands a local boy to pretend to be Palamon, who she loves, and have sex with her, at which point she’ll either be cured and they can marry, or she can just think she’s marrying Palamon. There are certainly some disturbing seeds there, particularly in a play that is overall so skeptical as to whether heterosexual marriage is really all it’s cracked up to be anyway. But in director Barrie Rutter’s version, there are no such concerns. Though there’s much joking about the Jailer’s horror at the doctor’s casual suggestion of extramarital sex, the fact of having sex with a girl under false pretenses is not really given much weight. The Jailer’s Daughter is eager enough, but as her final scene progresses, the softness and sweetness with which she and her faux-Palamon address each other seems to suggest either that her delusion is lifting and she is seeing and loving him for who he really is– or that we as audience are meant to set aside any concerns and accept that this lie-based love might be a kind of real anyway.

From a contemporary performance perspective, brightening up this subplot makes some sense, as the central plot’s resolution is murky and not particularly happy or satisfying. I’m not inherently opposed to this approach. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which I loved, took a similar tack, reassigning some of Valentine’s ending lines to Julia, so that she, too, had the opportunity to openly and explicitly forgive Proteus. Despite our tendency to devalue the power of forgiveness, this was an empowering and moving gesture. It was a choice that made the play better, from my perspective as a contemporary audience member, but they did have to change the play in order to make it.

Is changing Shakespeare in this way sort of like taking the n-word out of Mark Twain– censoring the past and attempting to turn a blind eye to the many shortcomings of the most iconic English-language playwright? If we are going to continue to produce Shakespeare, do we have a moral duty to then grapple with all the most troubling elements of his work and lay them bare– and to say, if we find certain elements too troubling to retain, then maybe we shouldn’t be performing the play at all? Or is it better to say that replicating offensive 16th and 17th century patterns is unnecessary, especially when it is often relatively simple to find an angle that allows for more hopeful and empowering readings?

I don’t have an answer, obviously. As you can probably tell, I was a little unsettled by Rutter’s take (though Francesca Mills, who plays the Jailer’s Daughter, is herself one of the highlights of the production), but I loved OSF’s very similar changes to Two Gentlemen. In general, I think in fact it’s more empowering to find ways for female characters to be happy than otherwise, particularly because subverting apparent happy endings often has the unfortunate side-effect of suggesting that even though these characters have told us what they want, we are not to believe them. Perhaps this is the difference between the cases of Julia and the Jailer’s Daughter: Julia is given new words, a new way to consent to what is otherwise unnervingly done on her behalf. The Jailer’s Daughter, on the other hand, has only her old words used a new way– but this new way requires that we take at face value what we know to be a lie.

It’s a trickier question, in other words, than ‘is it okay to change Shakespeare?’– and for now, it’s interesting to see the results of both approaches.

Quiz and Sympathy

My last year studying dramaturgy, we were all assigned to lead a class during our final seminar, and I attempted to lead a session about casting and dramaturgy. I did a terrible job– I think I’d do better now– but it also seemed to me that most of my classmates didn’t seem to agree with my central premise that casting is a feature of dramaturgy, and that it can and should be part of a dramaturg’s job to concern themselves with casting.

One element of this is more in the news now than it was even then: the possibilities and pitfalls of changing the gender or race or other identifiers of the character or actor playing the character, and whether this change is reflected in the text or is “blind,” and whether good intentions for diversity outweigh the potential for important implications if the casting choices aren’t considered important enough.

But after seeing James Graham’s Quiz on the West End yesterday, I found myself thinking about the more basic type of casting I attempted to lead a discussion about in that class: the simple ways in which the actor you choose to embody a character changes how an audience feels about them. My thesis at Columbia was ultimately about the ways this can change when a character’s gender changes, but this is true even when the basics of the character remain and only the actor changes.

I found Gavin Spokes, who plays Major Charles Ingram in Quiz, to be immensely appealing. I voted him in both the first and second acts, and immediately had to hurry home to Google what had become of him. But then something funny happened: looking at pictures of the actual Ingram, reading some of his quotes, I found I liked him less. I didn’t find the real Ingram as endearing as Spokes’s version at all, and it set me to wondering how I would have voted if someone more like the real Ingram had been cast. My parents and I were shocked by the results of the final audience vote, but they pointed out that people who actually remember the whole scandal were probably more biased against Ingram than we were as totally neutral outsiders, who knew nothing of the story going in. But maybe a more unappealing Ingram– or the memory of the actual one superimposed over Spokes’s sweeter version– would have swayed us another way.

This got me thinking of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which I first saw during its off-Broadway run at Ars Nova, then again when it was in its midtown Kazino location, and for a final time on Broadway. After seeing it at Kazino, I found myself feeling some sympathy for Anatole, the amoral antagonist who jilts Natasha, the heroine. Maybe he really did love her, I thought, and his crime was not heartlessness, but weakness, an inability to own up to his circumstances and responsibilities. But then, between the Kazino and Broadway runs, I listened to the cast recording a lot. And the more I listened, the more repulsive Anatole seemed. He was a cowardly, heartless, thoughtless creep (and an emblem of the kind of unthinking privilege that makes the show much more relevant to our current moment than I think even the critics who liked it gave it credit for, but nevermind).

It should be noted that Lucas Steele, who played Anatole, is– as the show puts it– hot. Extremely hot. Distractingly hot. Like, sufficiently so to distract you, maybe, from how awful Anatole is because he’s just so freaking attractive. But just hearing his voice on the recording– though he also has an amazing voice– grants enough distance from his physical beauty to focus on the ugliness of his behavior. This is, of course, exactly what happens to Natasha in the show, so maybe it was intentional.

This is all, of course, absurdly subjective. There are actors who will make me hate a character simply because they are the one playing the role, and there’s nothing a director can do about that. But it’s so easy to lose track of the ways in which the simplest of casting choices– not even dramatic ones like race or gender, but straightforward ones like whether it’s White Guy A or White Guy B, can completely change the audience’s experience of the character and story– and thus, actually change the story itself.

Does Hamlet Hate Women?

As anyone unfortunate enough to follow me on Twitter knows, I watched the BBC2 broadcast of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet last night, directed by Robert Icke. While it was met with basically universal critical raves, I was more or less irrevocably turned off by the production around 40 minutes in. Icke compresses the first four or five scenes of the play so that they take place on a single, chaotic night– a feeling he uses to good effect later, in the aftermath of Hamlet’s play, but doesn’t add much here. Except, that is, for the opportunity for Hamlet to leave his ghost sighting and immediately surprise Ophelia as she is taking a bath, and attack her. The camera cuts to the scene, which takes place far upstage behind glass, after Scott has entered, so it’s hard to tell how the sequence begins, but he seems to have surprised her, and Jessica Brown Findlay, who plays Ophelia, is rubbing her head as if he’s startled her into banging her head against the side of the tub, or maybe has even pulled her hair. She turns to Hamlet, he bends to her, and they kiss. But then he grabs her by the arm and wrenches her hand violently towards him. She pulls away, and he reaches out and grabs her by the throat.

This is, it becomes clear in the next scene, the encounter Ophelia describes to her father, when Hamlet approached her with “his doubled all unbrac’d.” In her own description, Hamlet does indeed take her by the wrist and hold her hard. She says nothing about being grabbed by the throat– nor, of course, about being naked and vulnerable in a bathtub.

I can’t stop thinking about this sequence– how offended I am by it, how no one mentioned it to me despite months of raves (possibly, as a friend noted, because it was difficult to see clearly in the live performance, which only raises the question why bother doing it, then), and just generally what a bad, bad choice it is– particularly in a show that then goes on to seize every opportunity to have Hamlet enact violence on Gertrude and Ophelia.

But the key word in that sentence is, of course, opportunity— which is to say, the text does offer these opportunities. There is a long tradition of Hamlets manhandling Ophelias and Gertrudes– after all, he has to be acting so wild and violent that both Gertrude and Polonius sincerely think Hamlet might kill her (Scott’s Hamlet goes on assaulting Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude long after this, at one point wrestling her to the floor). While I do feel that the sexual tone of this Hamlet’s attitude towards Ophelia was particularly marked– during the ‘nunnery’ scene, he kept forcing her to kiss him, as she struggled to try and break away– Hamlet is hardly less sexually crude and cruel verbally during the play scene, with his public taunting about country matters, with Ophelia offering terse responses that are hard to read as anything but embarrassment and discomfort. That is to say: did Icke’s addition of this assault (and unnecessary nudity) simply prime me to more readily notice what has always been there? Did the fact that I generally like the character Hamlet make me too willing to ignore his misogyny and violence?

Yes, I think. Sort of. To a certain extent. Hamlet is a misogynist. He treats Ophelia and especially Gertrude very, very badly. He constantly speaks slightingly of women, and his great love for Ophelia does not extend to actually speaking to her about anything or trying to let her in on his plan. Maybe, possibly, if you really think Gertrude helped kill her first husband, you can explain why Hamlet treats her the way he does, but otherwise it’s a stretch. Maybe, in a funny way, it’s good to lay his treatment of them bare– turn it into a midnight assault while she’s naked in a bathtub if that’s what it takes to make us see it.

But there are real differences between the way Ophelia describes her encounter with Hamlet and what Icke decides to show him doing. Though Ophelia describes Hamlet’s behavior as wild, and he grabs her by the arm, the bulk of her impression is of stillness and sadness: he stands staring at her, and she fixates on his sigh, “so piteous and profound, it did seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being.” She seems scared for him. Findlay’s Ophelia, on the other hand, should probably be scared of him. His attacking her in the bath turns their exchange in the nunnery scene more frightening: Hamlet, who previously realized that Polonius was bugged while speaking to him, tries to flirt and kiss her, and playfully gropes around the collar of her dress searching for a microphone. As it becomes clearer and clearer that Findlay is not joking or just putting on a show for her dad, Scott’s Hamlet gets angrier and angrier, culminating in the sequence described above, where he repeatedly forces her to kiss him. In light of his initial assault, I couldn’t read it as anything but an abuser growing violent when faced with repercussions– Ophelia breaking up with him– for his actions.

The ‘nunnery’ scene can certainly be frightening and violent, but the text leaves space for various explanations of what is happening. Is Hamlet trying to communicate to Ophelia that she should get the hell out of Denmark, and she doesn’t get it? Does she make it too obvious that she’s spying on him, and he loses his temper at the betrayal? None of these make Hamlet look great, but some make him seem less actively abusive.

But maybe I’m just trying to talk around the idea of Hamlet the abuser because I don’t want it to be true. Or, more accurately, I don’t know what to do with it. How do you perform that play? You can make it explicit, as Icke does, but that’s a risky choice, to say the least, and one the text doesn’t leave much space for dealing with. We have two and a half more hours to spend with this guy, what do we do with that time if we already hate the abusive protagonist? Can you even do Hamlet anymore if that’s who it’s about? It’s a case where you’d like to come up with a version that lays that bare, that centralizes the stories of Ophelia and Gertrude and maybe even Horatio and Laertes in response, but Shakespeare’s text simply does not allow for that.

That’s also clearly not the problem Icke was attempting to grapple with. I don’t know what he thought having Hamlet attack Ophelia in a bathtub would add, but it was certainly not meant to lessen our love for Scott’s Hamlet. He’s the star in every possible way, and we are so obviously meant to continue to find him intelligent and charming, and to feel bad for his pain. While Findlay’s journey through her scenes with Hamlet made perfect sense when read as a woman whose partner has suddenly attacked her, and for that reason she’s willing to go along with her father’s instructions to leave him, Icke’s not actually interested in Ophelia’s voice– a fact he makes abundantly clear by cutting almost all the text of her madness. The production overall cuts almost nothing– adds things, even including a very nice Q1 scene between Horatio and Gertrude– but Ophelia’s lines are gone. She has one or two of them, but it’s mostly singing. Where Shakespeare’s Ophelia repeatedly forces her way into the room, Icke’s is wheeled in in a wheelchair, not even allowed to move under her own power, her strange and troubling language of grief replaced with her beating her own chest and face. I have a lot of difficulty with Ophelia’s mad scene, and am always open to experimenting with it, but in this context, to replace language with silence and self-inflected violence felt frustrating and almost offensive in a context where almost no other lines had been cut, and this was an Ophelia who had explicitly been a victim of violence at the hands of the hero. It seemed to say that Icke values Ophelia more as an object upon which violence can be enacted than as a character who takes up space and has things to say.

So Hamlet may well be more problematic than I’ve fully allowed myself to realize before now. But I also think Icke made a textual problem much, much worse with wholly unnecessary nudity and sexualized violence towards the play’s female characters– and worst of all, didn’t really seem to realize he was doing it.

Tyranny is a Red Hat: Caesar at The Bridge

I have two responses to the Bridge Theatre’s Julius Caesar, and that they are only tangentially related is both a strength and a weakness of the show. Which will make sense by the end of this post, I hope.

First: I liked it! I am desperately in love with Michelle Fairley’s spiky, besuited Cassius. Though I implied otherwise in my last post, I do love a well-done female Cassius, and this is one of them, especially because she was not the token woman in the group of conspirators. The mid-storm conversation between Cassius and Casca (Adjoa Andoh) happening between two very smart, grimly determined women was really great.

Ben Whishaw’s deeply nerdy Brutus turned the character into a caricature of the much-mocked liberal elites, a highly intelligent, passionate scholar who seems to be turning his philosophy into direct action for the first time in his life, and doesn’t see why the rest of the world isn’t as fired up by complex philosophy as he is. He can’t break his nuanced, convoluted thoughts down into crowd-pleasing sound-bites, just as he can’t compromise his principles to raise money for his legions or to give ethically-dubious but necessary allies a pass. In Brutus, the play becomes about the ways in which the loftiest, most well-meant philosophy is no match for empty rhetoric that rouses the spirit.

Which is what leads into point two: I was startled to find myself not just annoyed, but actually offended by the production’s Trump-related imagery. The red hats with CAESAR embroidered on the front in a white serif font are the most obvious example; they were worn by characters, and were also available for the audience to purchase.

It offends me because the play is incapable of seriously entertaining the actual, contemporary questions that attend the potential death of an actual, contemporary figure like Trump. Reinforcing the already classist, sexist, and racist media tendency to limit discussions of Trump’s danger to hypothetical questions about American identity when there are people whose literal lives are at risk because of things he has already done and will do is shallow and counter-productive. I don’t blame Shakespeare for not raising these issues, but for a play now to insist on direct contemporary relevance and yet leave no room for considering the arguments of the people who would be/are most immediately impacted by such a leader’s policies is irresponsibly narrow. Shakespeare isn’t always the right vehicle for saying what needs to be said.

Because people have died because of Trump. More people will die because of Trump. His presidency is not a political abstraction about the powers of populism, it is a presently threatening fact. Trump and his stupid hats are not just punchy imagery to use to decorate your performance and give it some contemporary resonance, they are the banners of a movement which, within the past year, has caused innocent people to die.

This is all particularly uncomfortable when it comes to an immersive production, and raises interesting questions about immersive productions in general: what happens when you are being asked to immerse yourself in an experience you actively oppose? I refuse to even imaginatively participate in a pretend Trump rally under a symbol (that is, the hat) that, in the United States, has become an explicit emblem of prejudice and hate. I did not clap for him, and I did not cheer. I wasn’t standing in the pit, so I was able to enforce that distance for myself. I’m not sure how I would have done so down there, or if I would have been allowed to.

It is both damning and a saving grace that the Trumpian ideas basically disappeared after the play’s first three scenes. It’s proof that it’s not a particularly effective concept: it doesn’t map well onto the language the characters actually use about the political situation, and thus becomes difficult to sustain (unless you slap some novelty wigs on various characters, I guess). Fortunately, this meant that my distaste for the enforced parallel didn’t ruin the show for me, and I was able to set that soon-irrelevant imagery aside and enjoy what was actually happening.

The Lady Canon

The anecdotal agreement seems to be that so-called “gender blind” casting is on the rise. Dominic Cavendish got annoyed about it last year. But as long as only select roles within a production are cast against their written gender, it’s all but impossible for the casting to be “blind.” Their conspicuous altered presence, even tokenization, draws attention to the fact of the switch, and raises questions about which roles directors are open to switching and why. This latter question has been particularly interesting to me lately, as I’ve noticed distinct patterns not just in the specific roles that get offered to women, but the things these roles have in common. So I’d like to explore a few of the patterns I’ve been noticing. This is certainly not comprehensive– just some of the most interesting examples.

(A side note: I’ve really been struggling with how to break this conversation out of a gender binary, and haven’t yet found a way to do it. I’m comfortable referring to the roles themselves as male roles, because the characters are indeed written to be cisgender men, but I struggle to find the right language to for the individuals taking these roles (given the theatre industry as it stands now, these are almost exclusively cisgender women, but I’d like to find language that is more open to accommodating the expansion beyond this binary that I hope will someday take place) and for the process that is undertaken when this casting happens. “Switched,” “flipped,” and “swapped” all imply– at least to me– a binary, shifting from one pole to another. What is a verb that can contain the idea that these roles were male, but are being played by non-male individuals who are usually women? I’m still working on it, and for now, I apologize for the fact that this list will break down into a male/female binary, because that reflects the ways these roles have been cast in major productions so far. There is a whole separate conversation to be had about amateur/fringe Shakespeare and how such productions are more expansive in their experimentation with sexuality and gender, but that’s… one for the postdoc, maybe. And this isn’t even getting started on how much I hate using the word “female”…)

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern
I do literally mean Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are very frequently either both women, or a man and woman pair these days, but I also use it to stand in for similar small but speaking roles: Cornelius and/or Voltemand in the same play, the ambassadors in A Winter’s Tale, Henry IV’s other sons, Lady Grey’s older sons in Richard III. These types of roles are both easy and essential. If they are the only male roles being offered to women, then that’s just lazy. But a sufficiently wide spread of gender diversity, including such minor roles as well as major ones, is what helps shift attention from a single, token female lead, instead creating a theatrical world that can allow for actual “blindness” to gender.

Don John
I have seen three female Don Johns in the past two years, two of them within the past six months. Does this count as a trend yet? If so, I’m not sure I like it. I absolutely think that women should get a chance to swagger in black leather (don’t Don Johns always wear black leather?) and be pointlessly and a bit ineffectively evil, but when set against the gender politics of the play as a whole, this choice gets a little more troubling. I’m not sure if directors are making this choice because it will provide “motivation” for Don John’s envy of her brother and Claudio– of course she’s jealous! Women, amirite?– or because they think it will somehow soften the play’s incredibly troubling gender politics to have a women spearhead the aggressive (fake) slut-shaming of another woman. Neither of these sits right with me, the former for obvious reasons, the latter because it seems absurd and unfair to defang the play’s critique of chastity-obsessed patriarchy by turning its most active proponent into a woman. There are sexist women who hate women, of course, but Don John is not a role with sufficient complexity to responsibly explore that issue. Or they’re just not thinking about it at all, and think it would be fun to have a woman strutting evilly in black leather, which I empathize with. But my point is that we must think about these things beyond just the blanket assumption that any opportunity for women is narratively good– especially in a play whose embedded gender politics make “gender blindness” more or less impossible.

Kent, Benvolio, Horatio
The Globe’s King Lear this summer featured Saskia Reeves as Kent, and the Ian McKellan Chichester production soon to transfer to the West End had Sinéad Cusack, who I assume will also be in the West End version, but it hasn’t been announced.

Last year, I was at a conference about gender equity in the arts, and was attending a panel about the topic this post is exploring: making more space for women in the classics. I asked a version of the question I’m exploring here– what do you think of the fact that women are generally cast in the same types of male roles over and over?– and offered Benvolio as an example. One of the directors on the panel replied, “Well, I do think Benvolio should always be a woman!” Which both did and didn’t answer the question.

Finally, few recent major Hamlets have had women as Horatio, but it pops up quite a lot in regional production– my most recent was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016.

I lump all of these roles together because I think they are very similar tonally and in their relationship to the main character of their respective plays. They are all solid, prominent roles– Kent perhaps moreso than the other two, Benvolio perhaps less– but they make the top half of the cast list for sure. Their major function is to act as helpmeets and voices of reason in support of a male main character. Benvolio and Horatio are both pointedly non-violent in very violent plays. They are tirelessly devoted, even though they don’t always get the credit or respect they deserve for their efforts.

To say that a character like Benvolio should always be a women offers a slightly troubling implication about the types of roles we feel women “should” play. The thinking behind this assumption is obvious: he’s the pacifist of the group, he’s a voice of reason, he doesn’t really engage in the bawdy punning of the other boys. The same can be said, more or less, of Horatio and Kent. Only casting women in roles that reinforce stereotypes about femininity is contrary to the spirit of these casting experiments, in my opinion, and is not particularly creative at this point.

The Clowns: Feste, Touchstone, Jaques, Lear’s Fool, etc.
I think a major element of these is that most of the clowns are wholly sexless: there’s no risk of accidentally creating a queer relationship (the horror!!!)– except with Touchstone, but he’s also the one I’ve seen least. Their narrative isolation makes them easier to transform without much of a ripple effect. Even in a production that’s adhering to a historical setting that supposedly makes the introduction of women into more active roles complicated, the clowns and fools already exist in a set-apart place, literally granted license to live outside the ordinary social order.

To my mind, there is something a bit problematic about constraining women– especially under the excuse of “historical accuracy”– to these exceptional positions. There shouldn’t need to be a reason or an excuse for women to exist in your theatrical world– they’re already speaking in verse, for goodness’ sake. None of this is real. (And that’s not even getting into the fact that our popular ideas of “historical accuracy” as relate to the positions of marginalized groups tend to be wildly inaccurate anyway.)

It’s also sometimes difficult to know what the heck to do with the clowns, written as they usually were for specific performers, capitalizing on set bits and audience expectations that are now mostly lost. So I’m often readier to believe with the clowns and fools that they genuinely are a type of “gender blindness”– that the directors really have chosen the person who they feel will find something to bring to the role, some way to fill out and contextualize them, and the gender of the performer is sort of beside the point.

Cassius
Julius Caesar seems to be a show that is particularly likely to be cast wholly with women, or to feature “gender-blind” casting in various combinations– possibly because it is so often re-set into a contemporary context, and the relative lack of romance (you don’t tend to see female Brutuses in mixed-gender casts) makes it easy to avoid queering existing romantic relationships. I realize I keep alluding to this, and it’s because I can only assume this is a major concern for directors, because they so aggressively avoid it. The one time I’ve seen a female Julius Caesar (a choice I generally quite liked), Calphurnia was cut and her lines of warning reassigned to Mark Antony. 

In a mixed-gender cast (including right now in London), the lead most likely to be swapped seems to be Cassius. Though certainly one of the main roles, it is certainly the least impressive and least famous of the leading trio of Brutus, Antony, and Cassius. It is also the role explicitly identified as likely acting out of envy and insecurity. Unlike Brutus, he’s not particularly principled, is accused of accepting bribes, and even his death is actually just an accident resulting from a ridiculous miscommunication.

Is Cassius a great role? Absolutely. Am I arguing that it’s problematic to cast women as flawed characters? Absolutely not. But the nature of Cassius’s flaws– envy of powerful men, a hot temper and uncontrolled emotions, a death that results from a misreading of battlefield tactics– do evoke sexist stereotypes. I’m not necessarily saying women shouldn’t play Cassius, or directors can’t make something interesting out of these uncomfortable associations– but one does wonder why it’s Cassius they default to, and not the honorable Brutus, or the ultimately triumphant and scene-stealing Mark Antony.

Malvolio
Speaking of queering romantic relationships… I haven’t seen this that often, but it did happen twice in London recently. Turning the priggish, universally disliked (by the others onstage) character who is shamed and mocked for his inappropriate love interest into a lesbian? Yeah, cool.

Prospero
This one’s great because there’s a film! It’s not particularly easy to access, in my experience, but at least one instance of gender-swapped Shakespeare is permanently recorded as the Official Film Version. So that’s nice.

Despite their obvious differences in role size, power, and, uh, competence, I can’t help but think of Don John again, and the effect this casting has on the play’s themes I always slightly feel like a female Prospero disrupts or defangs the play’s patriarchal commentary. On the other hand, if you’re taking a post-colonial angle, white women are certainly as complicit in the violence of colonialism as white men.

But there’s also the more positive take on Prospero– one that I’m always slightly surprised to see because of the strong critical strain relating to Prospero’s patriarchal abuses, but which really is the more common theatrical version, in my experience. This taps into the cultural associations of Prospero with Shakespeare himself, and often comes in productions that bill the play as Shakespeare’s last, the epilogue serving as both the magician and the playwright’s farewells to their crafts. There is something compellingly subversive in having a woman inhabit this association (they do tend to be white women, though, so it’s not quite the height of radicalism just yet).

*

The title of this post is a reference to Dr. Jami Rogers’ concept of the “black canon,” a remarkably consistent set of roles in which black actors tend to be cast at the exclusion of other, usually better, parts. I believe we can see the same patterns in the roles generally offered to women, with related (probably subconscious) generalizations underpinning the choice of roles. Rather than blindly applauding casting choices on the basis that they provide opportunities for women, I’d like to see more rigorous interrogation of the types of opportunities that are consistently being offered, and more attention paid to these patterns, rather than approaching each instance as an isolated choice without broader resonance.