This week was a significant one for progress in the arts. At the Emmys in Los Angeles, a black actress finally won the outstanding lead actress in a drama award — for the first time since the category was created in 1952. And in her powerful acceptance speech, Viola Davis, star of How to Get Away with Murder, said: “The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Meanwhile, there was progress too in New York where a production of The Mikado by the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players was cancelled following objections to the performers putting yellow make-up on to play Japanese characters. Less noticed, but for my money even more significant because it’s a world-famous institution, and because it’s an opera in which this practice still happens a lot, the tenor playing the lead role in Verdi’s Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, again in New York, did not black up — for the first time since 1891. Progress can be slow, but when it comes it comes in waves.
But, take the less-travelled route from New York to Leicester and progress is more troubled. The actor Warwick Davis has objected to the Leicester De Montfort Hall Christmas pantomime of Snow White, not to the show itself but to the fact that there will be no dwarfs at all in it. Snow White will have seven ‘Friends’ instead, and they will be played by members of the show’s existing dance company. Ok, I too object. There is no fairy tale, no Disney film, no much loved story called Snow White and the Seven Friends. One can mess with these things too much.
The reason for the ‘Friends’ a spokesman for the show told The Stage newspaper is that “dwarf is not a word that people feel comfortable with.” To which Warwick Davis retorted: “If you talk to any audience member after they’ve seen a show that doesn’t feature short actors in the seven dwarfs, they would tell you they’d rather see short actors playing these roles. ..It’s a shame that other people being offended on behalf of an actor might take work away from them, when surely it is their choice to do it.”
As Mr Davis concluded, “paranoia” in the industry about offending short actors meant they were being hired less and less.
So basically, to make sure that everyone feels “comfortable” and to avoid causing offence, there will be seven fewer jobs for short actors in Leicester this Christmas, and many fewer jobs across the country in the future if this sort of paranoia continues. Who exactly is winning here?
The lesson for the arts world as it grapples with being fairer to minorities is surely to listen to those minorities, and not make assumptions about what might or might not offend. As Snow White and her seven Friends are discovering.
For £105 I want to see Glenn Close in a fully staged production
English National Opera announced this week that it is to put on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard next year with Glenn Close in the lead role of Norma Desmond. It’s a coup for the company. The announcement also said that, like Sweeney Todd earlier this year, the performances will be semi-staged. Why? The ENO is an opera company and its home, the London Coliseum, is an opera house, not a concert hall. It can certainly stage musicals, but it should stage them, not semi-stage them. With seats costing up to £105, it doesn’t seem to me to be too much to expect.
The moment that Matt Damon really did wish he was on Mars
Matt Damon’s new film The Martian has been criticised by some for inaccuracy about life on Mars, even though the movie, directed by Ridley Scott, had help from Nasa. At a screening in the US, Damon was challenged about his walking normally on Mars in the film, instead of hopping about, gravity on the planet being only a third of that on Earth. The annoyed actor replied to his challenger: “Wait — how much do you know?” A winner of a response 99 times out of 100 as screenings are usually attended by film critics and various hangers-on . This questioner, though, answered Damon: “Well, I am an astrophysicist.” According to one report, both Damon and Scott then paused in apparent panic. As, I suspect, did the person who drew up the guest list.