David Lister: The Week in Arts

An awkward question of cross-ethnic casting

Sir Peter Hall's production of Otello involved (as most productions of Otello do) the tenor "blacking up" to play the role of the Moor. I have remarked before that it is an oddity that, while no one will any longer countenance a white actor blacking up to play Othello in Shakespeare's play, no one has objected to this happening in Verdi's Otello. Indeed, Placido Domingo has done exactly this for years at the Royal Opera House, and not a whisper has been raised against it.

But as Glyndebourne's season came to a close, the issue raised its head. One black pressure group accused the production of being like The Black and White Minstrel Show. And The Guardian mocked the tenor, David Rendall, asking if he couldn't have "left off the slap". It will be fascinating to see whether the paper is quite so jeering if and when Domingo, the hero of the operatic world, plays the role again.

Even the notably sanguine Sir Peter Hall became angry, saying: "I'd prefer to have an Otello who was black, but there aren't any. This is the third time I've done the opera and it's the first time the issue has erupted. Perhaps we need some silly season leads at a time when we are at war."

Glyndebourne's artistic director, David Pickard, puts it more simply: "There are only six or seven singers in the world who could play this part, and none of them is black."

So the real, albeit awkward, question is whether one uses a tenor that both production director and artistic director believe is suitable for the part (but is white) or a tenor that both production director and artistic director believe is not yet quite ready for the part, but is black.

A few years ago I made the point in this paper and on the Today programme that the exclusion of white actors (such as Michael Gambon) from the role of Othello was depriving our best classical actors of one of the greatest tragic roles in the English language, and of being measured against Olivier. I also said it was bizarre that no one worried when a white man blacked up to play the role in Verdi's opera.

The second point has now been answered. It is unlikely that Verdi's Otello will escape scrutiny again. As to the first, well, I've partly changed my mind. In an age of, thank goodness, multi-ethnic casting, it is no longer comfortable to see a white actor black up. But it is also ludicrous that the greatest actors of the age cannot play one of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. And soon, some of the world's greatest tenors could be barred from singing it too.

The answer may be to have white actors and singers playing the role from time to time, without black make-up. Surely audiences are sophisticated enough to suspend disbelief and realise that the character is black. It happens the other way round. Nick Hytner at the National Theatre cast the brilliant young black actor Adrian Lester as Henry the Fifth. Will he now cast a brilliant white actor as Othello?

Who knows? This is an issue that the leading figures in the arts avoid talking about - and generally avoid casting. There are endless conferences on artistic issues, but not a word on the future of one of our greatest plays and one of our greatest operas - both performed more rarely than they should be for self-evident reasons.

Let's have an Othello/Otello conference to debate how both play and opera should be cast in the 21st century.

Keep your hair on... if nothing else

A revival of the Sixties hippie musical Hair is shortly to open at the Gate Theatre in London. When it was last revived in the Nineties, I interviewed one of its composers, Jim Rado, after watching him sing and dance with the cast in rehearsals. In time-honoured journalistic fashion, I asked him how old he was. He refused to answer, saying that once he revealed his age it would lead to a whole load of assumptions (probably the assumption "aren't you a bit old to be dancing with the cast?"). Anyway, he's back, with his pension book, to see the latest revival.

This production will feature not just the one mass nude scene from the original, but a second one as well. And audiences at the Gate, a small fringe venue, are very, very close to the stage. The director, it seems, is going for relevance, and apparently had a knapsack on stage at rehearsals as a reminder of the Tube bombings. I suspect that the excellent score and the double dose of nudity might be more of a draw than the relevance.

* It's well known that Paul McCartney used to sing nonsense words to his tunes before he came up with the eventual lyrics. "Yesterday", for example, was originally "Scrambled Egg".

The original words to another Beatles song are revealed this week in the biography of the Sixties folk singer Donovan. He recalls how McCartney came round to his house with his acoustic guitar and played him the first version of what was to become "Eleanor Rigby". The eventual first line was: "Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice from a church where a wedding has been." The lyric McCartney sang to Donovan was: "Ola Na Tungee, Blowing his mind in the dark with a pipe full of clay..."

He should have stuck with that. There are plenty of songs about sad ladies with unfulfilled yearnings. But an old mystic getting high on a pipe full of clay? Now that would have been a real cult classic.

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