The Racial Pecking Order in British Theatre and TV

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Structural Inequality In UK Theatre & TV

byDaniel York

I’ve been reading a book recently by the American sociologist David T. Wellman with the frankly terrifying title Portraits Of White Racism. I say terrifying because it conjures all kinds of images of Aryan skinhead fascists with big boots and arm-bands. I find myself hiding the lurid green cover of the book so people won’t see it when I’m reading it on the tube.

In fact the book isn’t about skinhead fascists at all. Rather its premise is to refute the popular notion that all “racism” is born of ignorant prejudice. Instead Wellman’s subject is

culturally sanctioned strategies for defending social advantage based on race”.

Of course the very word “racism” is now so incendiary it actually seems to have become worse to call someone a racist than actually be one. But leaving aside Wellman’s terminology there…

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In Performance: Changing King Lear

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There is an old adage about how the show’s different every night with which I’m sure most people who go to the theatre regularly are familiar. I have been privileged to see Simon Russell Beale play Lear – not to mention the rest of the excellent cast – multiple times since it opened in January, including the surreal experience of sitting beside Zoe Wanamaker at press night (surreal for various reasons, not least of which was that I was there on a press ticket and they’d stuck me next to an actor – two, since Gawn Grainger was obviously with her – who would have most definitely not been pleased had I taken notes throughout; so I just enjoyed it that night and enjoyed the chat).

Within the six-month run of Sam Mendes’s production of King Lear I have seen the permutations of nothing’s the same every night. There have been the disasters that collective wisdom tells us we crave at live events (which is a bit rubbish, in my opinion – although I did see Julie Walters and Ken Stott break the all-important urn in Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo about twenty years ago, when they both sheepishly turned around, Walters said they’d had a whoopsie and stopped the show because it was a vital plot point later in the play until stage management brought them a new urn; that was indeed memorable). At one Saturday matinee in April – in fact, on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, so maybe it was bad karma – this heavy scenic wall flew in at a crooked angle, which was barely perceptible to the audience, until it was mentioned by the stage manager. He had, of course, walked on and apologised and said that as they didn’t want the actors crushed, they had to see why it had flown in so oddly. It was a twenty-minute break – which obviously made it not your average show and certainly different that afternoon.

It’s the small, subtle changes that are far more interesting though. From experience, I know from the inside that every performance has markedly subtle shifts in delivery or blocking. It’s just the way it is; we’re not robots and when you’re dealing with human emotions and repeating them night after night, it’s never a carbon copy. These are also things that you don’t necessarily notice until you’ve started to get to know it like the back of your hand. Which is where I am with this Lear (although I’d be hard-pressed to describe the back of my hand, so I think I know this Lear better than the back of my hand which I apparently take for granted). I have also got an aide memoire in the form of the notes I took – not the night with Zoe Wanamaker, obviously – so that I could write a detailed and nuanced review (see forthcoming issue of Shakespeare Bulletin). Which means that some of the things I’ve just cemented in the historical record are not what everyone who’s ever been to see this Lear will have seen.

In my notes (and my review), I wrote that when Goneril was expressing the depth of love for Lear (or Lear’s money) Simon Russell Beale was prowling around the stage and passing behind her, which made Kate Fleetwood’s Goneril very uncomfortable. Last night, he didn’t do that. What he did do was equally distressing to Goneril but it gave it an entirely different texture, subtly shifting the boundaries of the relationship between father and daughters. Tonight, Lear didn’t pace behind Goneril but instead went around to the silent Cordelia and stroked her hair. It made Cordelia uncomfortable and her sisters seemed less than thrilled as well.

In my next viewing of Lear in May, Adrian Scarborough’s Fool extraordinarily pulled a plastic coat-hanger out from under the back of his jacket, bringing it up so that it passed the back of his neck and went over his head before being presented to Lear. That was – I thought – one of those one-off mistakes; I had an image of Scarborough being late for his cue and having grabbed his jacket off the rack without noticing. Last night, the Fool presented Lear with a lollipop. Scarborough clearly brings Beale something different every night.

These subtle shifts – at least in this case – show how the cast is still working on the production and keeping it alive six months into the run. These minute differences that are basically invisible to the naked eye are a sign of the organic nature of theatre – and theatre’s unwillingness to be anything but immediate and ephemeral. And a gentle reminder that nothing is fixed and a brilliant primer on the top quality acting being produced.