In the play “Nathan the Wise” an elderly Jewish man teaches Saladin and a Knights Templar the meaning of tolerance and wisdom and love. So, in our increasingly matriarchal world, he must now be played by a woman. At least, he is, at the Stratford Festival next year.
The Windsor Star cast this decision as wonderful liberal boundary-shattering audaciousness. Seriously? From a company that will also be putting on “Billy Elliot”, “Little Shop of Horrors” , “The Front Page”, and Noel Coward’s “Private Lives”. Last year: “The Music Man”, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and “An Ideal Husband”. Well, how cutting edge can you get! They’ll never sell any tickets to those challenging productions! Couldn’t we at least get some Neil Simon to lighten things up?
“Boundaries help define who we are; they can either protect or confine us. Whether they’re imposed on us by others or we draw them ourselves, they represent the limits of what we think is acceptable, advisable or even possible,” Cimolino said in a press release.
You might think Cimolino thinks there are hundreds of theatre-goers out there who will be shocked that “Billy Elliot” seems to encourage boys to take up dance. I feel confident that when they come out to see “Billy Elliot” next year, they will change their minds.
Of course, the truth is that “Billy Elliot” is just about the safest production Stratford could present. It is blindingly, mind-numbingly safe, just as “The Green Book”, supposedly about a courageous white thug who has his mind blown by a black classical pianist, is the safest, least controversial movie of the year. Both of them play to our fantasies about being courageously tolerant and open-minded and better than the foils in these films and plays. Generally, they confirm the rather high view of ourselves we hold as liberal theatre-goers.
Stratford Festival cast a woman as Prospero in “Tempest” last year. The esteemed Martha Henry got the part. Why? I’m not clear on the argument for casting women in men’s roles, though we certainly have long had men in women’s roles, in Monty Python, and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “La Cage Aux Folles”. I’m not opposed. Perhaps they were short of male actors. Perhaps it was a tacky sop to liberal feminist audiences from Toronto who want to make sure that all their friends see the review of the play they went to see.
It was not the fact that Marthe Henry was a woman playing a man’s role that bothered me. It is that she didn’t really do anything with the role.
I didn’t care for Henry’s performance. My wife wonders how I get the nerve to not like such a famous serious actress in such an audacious role when everyone calls her “acclaimed” and shouts “don’t miss it”. Who do you think you are? You didn’t want to like her. On the contrary, I thought it might be a gas. But it wasn’t. It was boring because Henry, in this play at least, gave an unaccountably weak performance, without nuance or shadings, without inflection or color, and without interest. But some people find it just so liberal to cast a woman in a major male role that I believe she got a pass from most critics. Think about it. You are writing a piece on this production for the Toronto Star. You didn’t like Henry’s performance. Are you going to write that? And count on all those broad-minded, tolerant progressives to stand up for your right to your own opinion? And humiliate all those well-paid elitists who paid over $100 for tickets to a show that didn’t get a rave review? No, you are not.
Is this a statement that women are just as smart as men and therefore should be allowed to play the roles that smart men created for men? That’s a shortcut, of course. What you really want, if you’re such a feminist, is for women to play women’s roles in plays written by women. And fill the theatre. And fill the theatre because of the women’s roles in women’s plays, and not because some man built up the theatre’s reputation first. You don’t want to be piggyback riding on a man’s work, do you?
Quick– name a play written by a woman that you want to see.
Okay– just name any play by a woman. Come on– at least one.
I had to google it too. The only one I recognized was “Raisin in the Sun”, a very good play about a poor black family living in Chicago in the 1950’s who receive a large sum of money and don’t know what to spend it on.
They will probably get better parts at SoulPepper Theatre now that the theatre company, founded by a man, built by a man, driven to a high level of excellence by a man, has been hijacked by female cast members and board members and major donors and will now be able to provide a shortcut to prestige roles for the privileged women who are friends of the women who drove out Albert Schultz, and buy a nice cake for Ann-Marie MacDonald who was cruelly exploited when she worked there by being forced– under threat– to go out to dinner with large donors. The nerve.
Let’s do “Julius Caesar” with a woman as Brutus. Let’s do “King Lear” with a woman as Lear. Let’s do “MacBeth” with a man as the murderous Lady MacBeth. Let’s do “Hamlet” with a woman who can’t make up her mind as Hamlet! Let’s do “50 Shades” with a man as the submissive! Let’s do “Atlas Shrugged” with a man as the mediocre novelist.
Let’s do “Evita” and take the beautiful aria away from Peron’s mistress and give it to Madonna! Well, why the hell not? That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? The unearned accolade. The appropriation of the work of men by privileged women who treat male sexual desire as psychosis and have, temporarily at least, been rewarded with the collusion of the liberal establishment: the CBC, the Toronto Star, Stratford.
Let’s do “Huckleberry Finn” with a woman as Huck, and a woman as Jim, and a woman as Mark Twain.