PASSING BY... Acting the fool

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The arrogance of some actors and directors in wanting to change the intentions of writers and composers leaves Antony Thorncroft in a fury

I doubt that any research has ever been undertaken on the intelligence levels of creative artists. My own biased and rudimentary findings would suggest that musicians and writers come top of the heap, with actors at the bottom. Visual artists tend to be so immersed in their work that they often have little connection with the outside world.

But actors. They really should not be allowed to sound off in public. Perhaps because they earn their living by repeating the words of others they often lose their ability to think for themselves. It is amazing how many of them never escape their student optimism, offering their ingenuous views on the environment, feminism and the revolution. Few take it to the extremes of Vanessa Redgrave and Frances de la Tour, who would find Jeremy Corbyn a bit unreliable at times, but most happily trot out platitudes, oblivious to the fact that creativity can only flourish in a world without ideologies. I well remember the late Tony Banks, when in charge of the GLC funding of the arts, telling me that naturally he would only give money to left wing arts groups; propaganda was part of the cause.

This self-righteousness is given full rein at awards ceremonious where every fashionable campaign receives a vote of approval from the trophy clutching winner. I usually switch over during the acceptance speeches but I was too slow at the screening of the recent BAFTA ceremony and caught actor James Nesbitt’s impassioned cry for justice. His complaint was that there was a bias in favour of men in television drama: blinkered writers failed to create sufficient roles for women. There should be positive discrimination to ensure that they were equally represented on screen.

I can’t say I notice much of a discrepancy, especially among the soaps, but the implications of his proposals are quite horrifying. Out goes freedom of expression; in comes bureaucratic quotas. It would seem ridiculous but Nesbitt appears to be in tune with current thinking. Given the number of male roles, especially in Shakespeare, that are now performed by women, from a clutch of female Malvolios currently on the London stage, to Glenda Jackson as King Lear, an all-female Julius Caesar, and more.

The excuse, apart from employment opportunities, is that it forces the audience to view the character from a new angle. The fact that it can make nonsense of the text and forces uncomfortable readjustments in the expectations of the audience is ignored. In most cases instead of encountering a new interpretation of the character you are a slave to the director’s ego.

I know that the original Cleopatras and Ophelias were boys and that Sa- rah Bernhardt was famous for her Hamlet but the current trend has more to do with cultish self-righteousness than any dramatic improvement. It is part of the contemporary correctness that ensures that Shylock is quite a reasonable chap really and the Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew is only playing at subservience to Petruchio: the worm will turn. I am waiting, with little hope, for the first white female Othello. It all reminds me of those 18th century sensibilities that ensured that King Lear had a happy ending.

It seems to be generally agreed that Shakespeare is so outdated that he deserves a good kicking, but if this passion for a gender free-for-all invades television the results would be terrible. In fact I cannot see it happening. Theatre audiences will passively accept bizarre interpretations of the text but I cannot see a television audiences accepting a woman dressed up as Poldark. No doubt the cultural revolutionary guards will start with a female Dr Who, but making it clear that the Doctor has gone with the ow and had a fashionable sex change.

I caught Nesbitt’s attempt to dictate the future of television drama (which was warmly applauded by the audience) while still recovering from an even more hare-brained

idea from the opera director Katie Mitchell on Radio 3. She said she was sick and tired of seeing characters being portrayed as the composers imagined them, quoting the example of Violetta in La Traviata who is forced to play the part as a consumptive courtesan, irrespective of the fact that that is what she is. Mitchell would like to create a feisty Violetta and one who was not too pretty either. She ruefully acknowledged that she had never been asked to stage the opera. What she is suggesting not only damns Puccini’s genius but would make nonsense of the music and the actions of all the characters. It is ego-driven and selective: I cannot believe that she plans a Madame Butter y where Butterfly is a coquette and Pinkerton the hero.

I notice that the Traviata at Glyndebourne has been criticised for its con- temporary setting, with little distinction between the Paris salon at the start and the subsequent release into the bucolic countryside. So it goes on. Most adverse critical reviews of new opera productions at Covent Garden and the Coliseum concentrate on the inanities of the director, pur- suing contemporary interpretations on dreary sets bearing no relation to the composers’ imaginations. When will the perversions of opera directors be curtailed, and when will actors grow up?


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