For a blog called “shkspr.mobi”, I don’t blog enough about Shakespeare. Sorry!
The brilliant thing about Shakespeare is its versatility. You can do almost anything with it. Mess around with genders, set it in space, make a puppet show. It all just works. Perhaps you’ve seen a gender-flipped version of one of the minor history plays set in Wales against the Miners’ Strike and it was proper theatre. Or maybe you only ever watch all-male casts from the groundlings to see what it was really like back in the day.
Whatever. Each retelling gives us something new:
- When you watch an all-female cast, it plays with your sense of the presentation of masculinity.
- When it’s set in the modern day, it challenges your notions of progress.
- When it’s an all-star cast, you get the joy of intertextuality.
You can watch the same play a hundred different times and get a hundred different interpretations of the text. That’s what I love – seeing a version that I’d never even considered.
Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an all-black* cast perform Shakespeare. So, I found PBS’s Much Ado About Nothing.
*NB that’s how the PBS website describes it.
The only actor I’d seen before was Danielle Brooks from “Orange is the New Black”. It’s always tempting to think of TV stars as inferior theatre stars, and I’d only seen her in a few early episodes of OitNB. But, obviously, she is brilliant. She’s fierce and frosty, sweet and merciful, and utterly hilarious.
Previously, I’d have said that Catherine Tate was my favourite Beatrice. But perhaps that’s intertextuality talking?
The rest of the PBS cast are superb – although unfamiliar to me. That also brings a new dimension, when you have no preconceived notions of who an actor is, it frees you to enjoy them as a character.
Shakespeare has a…. errr… complex relationship with racism. Othello, Shylock, Caliban – all great parts – but not exactly sympathetic characters, are they? Again, it can depend on how you cast the part, and how it is directed.
So, what does it mean to watch an mono-racial Shakespeare performance?
Well, first off, how often have you seen an all-white cast? The “Ado” with Tate and Tennant is embarrassingly pale.
So, my top tips for all of you:
- Seek out media which challenges your ideas of what “proper Shakespeare” looks like.
- Find things performed by casts which don’t look like you.
- Notice how it changes the way you react to characters.
- Realise that the only bad Shakespeare is Shakespeare performed without enthusiasm.
Sadly, the PBS video is blocked in the UK. Although fairly trivial to circumvent.
If you’re interested in Shakespeare, and if you think #BlackLivesMatter – you owe it to yourself to watch it.