[LMB] Mercutio and Tybalt OT:

John Lennard john.c.lennard at gmail.com
Thu Jan 13 15:35:35 GMT 2022

John: > Same-age, same-sex casting is a
> phenomenon generated by cinema and TV, which use close-ups, and spread to
> theatre because actors' and directors' eyes and minds are now trained by

Margaret: Though I think that live theater is still more inherently
flexible in this
way than filmed drama is, because it's already asking more collaboration
from the audience, more of an effort of imagination in creating the play's
reality -- the sort of thing Shakespeare makes explicit in the prologue to
Henry V, for instance: essentially, "You folks are going to have to help us
out here if we're going to recreate the battle of Agincourt in this 'wooden
O'." So if the audience can pick up on a line like, "Well, this is the
Forest of Arden" and help imagine the actors into a forest, they're not
going to boggle at trifles like an actor's age or sex (or, nowadays,
complexion) not being identical with their character's.

John: Yup -- as Stephen Greenblatt once said, theatre does not want to
elicit our belief, but our complicity ; and in most theatre traditions
there is room for flexibility, as folk have lately been showing by
feminising various Shax roles -- Queen Cymbeline, and the like. But the
youngest professional actor I know of who played Lear was Scofield, who was
40 when he did the stage show on which the film was later based ; and the
youngest I've ever seen live was Tom Wilkinson at 47. Olivier did it at 74,
McKellen at 67, Jacobi at 72 (IIRC). Outside school or student productions,
Lear just ain't available until you're old/er.

But with the female roles there is an issue, because they are now rarely
played professionally by female actors who are less than mid-20s and
physically mature as women -- which does mean audiences are not usually
reading them as teenage, never mind early teenage. Desdemona is a case in
point, for she is really very naive and inexperienced -- never mind
interracial, what about 14 marries 40+? -- and having her plainly be a
20-something erases that. Not coincidentally, the most affecting Juliet
I've ever seen, Karolina Ebner, was actually (IIRC) just 18 when she played
the part, and looked 16-. Terrifying. And I dearly wish to see a Desdemona
who looks 14. And a Cressida. The plays would transform from anything we're
now used to.

As you mention colour-blind casting (meaning the actor's skin tone is
irrelevant), let me also mention one problem with it, which is that if one
says Othello -must- be played by an actor of colour (which is now pretty
much the case), one is also implicitly saying that no actor of colour can
play anyone else in *Othello*, including the much more interesting role of
Iago. It can be done, of course, as by the RSC a few years back with both
Othello and Iago played by actors of colour, but that was seen as gimmicky,
and the seemingly anti-racist rule has costs that those advocating it
rarely seem to register.

John: > The other heroines seem, like Juliet, clearly teenage -- Sylvia and
> Julia, Lavinia, Helena and Hermia, Portia and Nerissa, Rosalind and Celia,
> Cressida, Ophelia, Desdemona: no reason to think any of them much above
> if that -- so one might say that while being played by pre-pubescent boys
> did not make them at all masculine, it did tend to keep them young.

Margaret: I remember my Shakespeare prof in college pointing out
indications in the
plays that there may have been "the short dark one" (Hermia, Celia) and
"the tall blonde one" (Helena, Rosalind).

John: And yup again. The contrast may have varied over time as boy actors
got older and either became adult players or left the stage, but as with
the fat/thin odd couple pairings, having a clear contrast of the paired
heroines (derived from commedia dell'arte, where it's usually the prima
donna inamorata and her friend or maid) in colouring or height or both does
several jobs -- helps the audience to know who's who, sets up banter and
insults, and stages difference that can be used for humour and all sorts.

John Lennard, MA DPhil. (Oxon.), MA (WU)

Associate Member, Hughes Hall, Cambridge
Independent Scholar

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