Shakespeare, Cambridge: Summer 2003
Propeller's Dream at the Arts Theatre (with some thoughts on clumping blue-jowled drag
Michael Grosvenor Myer
Grosvenor Myer, Michael. "Shakespeare, Cambridge: Summer 2003." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.2 (September, 2003): #.1-<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-2/gromyrev.html>.
In the words of another great man of the theatre, Oscar Hammerstein II: "We got football, we got baseball, and a lot of dandy games. What ain't we got?..." He was writing, of course, of the US Navy in the South Pacific in WWII. But my sentiments tend into the same channel when it comes to companies like Edward Hall's Propeller - "a regular all male ensemble of actors" who "aim to perform Shakespeare's plays with [this'n'that praiseworthy aim]" (programme). Well, they do; but while the sex-starved sailors knew, though they didn't like it, why the South Pacific furnished them with nothing to put on a new white suit for when what they wanted was something there was no substitute for, these all-male productions leave me feeling a bit like the little boy pointing at the chinless
wonder in the famous old Punch cartoon and demanding, "Mummy, what's that man for?" I put the question at the interval of Propeller's A Midsummer Night's Dream to all the Arts Theatre's press and promotion and education reps and all the other critics gathered in the bar, and they all looked at me. It was as if I had questioned some law of nature. There were mutters about original productions, which died away when I pointed out that smooth-faced flute-toned prepubescent boys were not the same thing as mature male actors. (I once denounced a company in a Guardian review for playing Kate and Bianca in Shrew as "a pair of clumping blue-jowled drag queens". Their artistic director told me later that they had played to full houses throughout an Oz tour by quoting this phrase on their pre-publicity and outside the theatres where they played, which I suppose says something about the power of the critic, though I'm blowed if I can make out quite what.)
But no-one I asked at the Arts had any real answer, and the programme is almost silent, though the question must have arisen before, surely. The only reference is in a piece by the "performing text editor", who remarks en passant that "an all-male cast may [my itals] help to bring out the androgyny in the play, a heightened version of the Elizabethan concern with spiritual relationships between people of the same sex". This strikes me as a fine piece of all-my-eye when it comes to the wonderful eroticism of the Dream, in which I'll venture that Will, whatever his own predilections, would have thought himself thrice-blest if they'd let him put a sexy lady or two on the stage.
It isn't even as if a question of Political Correctness were involved as, arguably, with the colourblind casting that is a bit controversial these days (see, e.g., Biyi Bandele's piece in The Guardian of 26 April). There are clearly two sides to that one; I don't think I risk having my collar felt by the PC-Police [no pun intended] if I question whether it's always in the interests of the Jamesian specificity of reference: I well remember in a Measure for Measure, when a particularly fair and Nordic-looking Isabella said to a very black
Claudius, "Heaven shield my mother played my father fair", a voice along the row hissed "Well obviously she didn't". A critic in The Times wrote recently, re the National's Henry V, that we are in "an era that should now be used to colour-blind casting"; so that's all right then. The recent TV Twelfth Night on the other hand used a mixed-race cast as it should be done, with great intelligence -- white Olivia, black Orsino and court, Asian illegal-immigrant twins -- and should have worked a treat. Its misfortune was to be deadly
boring, played almost without expression at funereal pace: a surprise from Tim Supple, one of those directors who impressed enormously during his student days here; a Merry Wives as English folk-play lives on in my mind after twenty years.
Why this fad for sex-blind Shax, however, I have no idea. A Guardian critic wrote recently of a one-sex Richard II that the lack and smallness of female roles in that play meant that "the gender swapping adds little"; he's an ex-colleague that I know quite well, so I wrote to ask him what he thought it ever adds; he hasn't replied.
Not that this Dream wasn't, bating that, a very beautiful production, finely spoken, with atmospheric live harmonica music and suitable folksong (a worksong as leitmotiv for the mechanicals, the Copper Family's "Sportsmen Arouse" for the huntsmen), plenty for the eye in clever set and costuming, and a chorus of Titania's fairies in which all the players not actually needed in that scene mucked in; it was excellently played all round, especially by Guy Williams's dominant but occasionally self-doubting Oberon. But, while all the men-as-maids resolutely eschewed camp and played perfectly competently and sort-of-convincingly if necessary allowances were made, their very presence undermined the
Flute-as-Thisbe joke entirely; and, more generally, the amorous conviction of the piece throughout. Why? Oh why? And why again? But answer comes there none.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).