Tom Sutcliffe: Private lives in a public muddle

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The creator of Glee, Ryan Murphy (hallowed be his name), has apparently called for a boycott of Newsweek magazine over a recent column by one of its writers which suggested – and I'm simplifying for the sake of economy here – that gay actors still have problems playing straight characters. I don't suppose Newsweek is hugely worried about this call to arms. I don't know what the demographic overlap is between gay activists and Newsweek readers, but I don't suppose it's vast. And, even if heterosexual opponents of homophobia took to the barricades alongside Murphy, I'm not convinced that the magazine will be brought to its knees. And that begs a question anyway, which was whether the article was homophobic in the first place. Murphy thought so, describing it as "needlessly cruel and mind-blowingly bigoted", which lead me to expect some kind of Jan Moir abscess-burst. In fact, on reading it you discover a piece which is certainly performance-phobic, in relation to two particular recent appearances by out gay actors, but otherwise simply raises a question which might be applied to actors of any sexuality at all – which is the extent to which our knowledge of a performer's authentic character affects our belief in his or her assumed one. The writer of the piece, Ramin Setoodeh, is actually gay himself. That needn't necessarily rule out homophobia, of course, but makes it an outside bet.

I suspect that one of the things that had really got under Mr Murphy's skin was that the quality of his casting had been called into question. Setoodeh's piece was hooked to a Broadway performance by Sean Hayes (the gay character in Will & Grace) and the appearance in Glee of an actor called Jonathan Groff. Neither of them had entirely convinced Mr Setoodeh, and he suggested that these weren't instances of below-par pretending but examples of a more generalised problem for gay actors. I don't suppose he made things any easier on himself by describing Hayes' performance as the "big pink elephant in the room", a problem which had been tactfully ignored by the Broadway critics – but then he wouldn't have been the first writer to have been unwisely seduced by a colourful turn of phrase.

What he was really getting at, though, was the perceptions of the audience rather than the quality of the performance. As it happens, I didn't know anything about Groff's private life – and he seemed perfectly plausible as a straight guy to me (I should add two caveats: my own gaydar is so faulty that even Graham Norton barely triggers a blip; and Glee is such a snowstorm of campery anyway that weaker signals would probably get lost in the general noise). Setoodeh arrived with previous knowledge, though – and found he couldn't forget it. And since this was pitched in terms of critical disappointment, it was easy to interpret his piece as calling for a theatrical implementation of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".

I think two things got muddled here. The first – related to Hayes – was the question of how effectively a television star associated with a single role can shake that persona off in other parts. To offer a neutral analogy, how difficult would it have been for Richard Wilson, fresh from the height of his fame as Victor Meldrew, to play the part of, say, St Francis of Assisi? He could bring it off – but it's also possible that Meldrew would be lurking there somewhere all the time, dangerously liable to get in the way with the trigger of a certain intonation. Hayes, famous for being a flamboyantly camp Gay Best Friend, predictably found some of that fame getting in the way of a very different kind of character. But importantly, the clash here was between two imaginary personas, neither of which were the "real" Hayes.

The second issue was significantly different, because it related to the mismatch between an imaginary persona and a real one. Groff's sexuality wasn't the residue of a previous performance or his brand, just a detail of his private life, and one that should have been irrelevant. And there was a sense that Setoodeh, in finding Groff's performance unconvincing, had simply found the most convenient available hook on which to hang his dissatisfaction – a hook that wouldn't have been available if Groff had been less candid about his private life. By doing so, he exemplified a prejudice that, elsewhere in his piece, he was quite explicitly challenging. I don't think a boycott is what Newsweek needs. I think it's just more vigilant copy-editing... and time for a second draft.

Time to cut out the aerial assault

Could I suggest an amendment to the Communications Act of 2003? Banning the use of helicopters in political coverage. On several occasions recently we've been treated to a pointless birds-eye view of a politician's car travelling from point A to point B, as if this godlike perspective could give us any useful information about the evolving story. What possible journalistic justification can there be for such carbon-burning extravagance? Are they clattering around up there in case Cameron makes a break for the nearest channel port, instead of going to Buckingham Palace? Or could it be that the helicopters only get used on these occasions in order to justify having a helicopter on call in the first place? There are things for which aerial shots are indispensable: taking a long shot of Griff Rhys Jones on the top of Helvellyn, say, or providing halfway decent coverage of lava flows. But I'd suggest that their only contribution to political journalism is to lift you high above the place where you might actually see something significant.

The great wall of Hammersmith

One of the pleasures of visiting the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith since Sean Holmes took over as artistic director has been the foyer murals the theatre now commissions for each production. Produced by a Manchester-based collective called Sketch City they cover a long wall next to the bar – presumably a tempting canvas for any street artist, and offering rather pleasanter working conditions than the average underpass. The artists producing the murals start work as previews begin, watching the play and working up a design which – so far at least – usually incorporates portraits of all the cast. They aim to have it finished by First Night, so if you want to see work-in-progress you'll have to book early. But even if you miss that live-action contribution to the artistic buzz of the theatre the murals do something intriguing to the theatre space – making it feel less formal and more inventive. I don't know whether it costs a lot, but it's a trick other theatres should steal I think. There are a lot of dull grey walls at the National.

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