Saturday, 5 March 2011

Some thoughts on the new Julie Taymor/Dame Helen Mirren version of "The Tempest."

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I started thinking about this as I walked into town listening to the Simon Mayo/Mark Kermode film review programme. On a recent programme Simon interviewed Dame Helen Mirren, and Mark Kermode reviewed the new film version of "The Tempest" in which she plays a traditionally male role, Prospero, as Prospera. This is a Shakespeare play that I love and I have a strong idea of the commanding presence of Prospero, so I initially take against this idea. I would be interested to see this film - I haven't yet - but my initial response to a clip that I have seen is that the film is nowhere near as revolutionary as it likes to think it is.

This isn't a review of a film that I haven't seen. However, the idea of changing the gender of a character started a train of thought that I found interesting. I don't pretend that this is a strongly defined critical argument - it is an instinctive, personal reaction, which is inflected by my own gender and where I am in my life at the moment. I'm anxious not to say anything that might be offensive as this is a sensitive topic - I'm not well versed in feminist theory, and I am going to bring up the idea of race as well - but I do want to get my ideas down to try to work them through.

My problem with gender-blind and colour-blind casting is that it can only truly exist in a setting in which there is sexual and racial equality. We might be closer now than we ever have been, but it would be naive to think that we are there. If you live in a society in which you are judged by the colour or biological operation of your body, however subtly, this is going to reflect on your world-view, your character and affect your status in life. The danger is that, while gender-blind and colour-blind casting can provide an interesting and different slant on a character, there is a fine line between providing an interpretation and changing the role in a way that twists the original script and undermines the veracity of that character's experience.

I am aware that there is precedent for gender-blind casting in the classics: Frances de la Tour has played Hamlet; Kathryn Hunter has played King Lear. Despite this, I'm less convinced of the validity of gender-blind casting than I am by colour-blind casting. This is, however, with the obvious caveat that there are times and locations in history where colour-blind casting would not be appropriate and would be denying the reality of historical race relations in a way that is as insidious as denying the holocaust. This is less the case in a modern setting, in which I like to think that racism is less prevalent in society; in a modern setting the colour of a person's skin might not be specified in a script and can be mutable. However, a character is surely normally written as male or female. The body of a white man or a black man has the same basic physiological characteristics and biological operation; a woman's body with its possibility of child-bearing partly alters the character's relation to the world, and partly alters the way the character is viewed by others (this is where my ideas are coloured by my own current perspective on life). The choice of whether to have a child, or the ability to have a child, is very emotive and I'm not totally convinced that it doesn't change the character of Prospero beyond recognition for her to be Miranda's mother rather than father.

I think I have been fairly safe - but if I have inadvertently written anything to offend anyone, I apologise. In this blog post, I was trying to work out my own feelings on this. However, I know that racism and sexism are emotive subjects about which people very rightly get angry. I am aware that this reductionist view of the female body is likely to get me bitch slapped by Germaine Greer (who I admire a lot). I'm actually right at this moment trying to decide whether to actually post this - mostly because I suspect the main thing that this argument reveals is the very personal fact that my biological clock is starting to tick loudly enough to drown out my critical faculties - but I've decided bugger it, I'll post it. But this post might disappear if I lose my nerve, get embarrassed, or change my mind about this subject.

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