Good looking actors and voyeuristic critics

IS IT legitimate for a theatre critic to write about an actor’s body? That was the provocation laid down by freelance casting director Annelie Powell on Twitter this weekend.

It’s worth taking a look at her Twitter feed to see how people responded. It’s an interesting discussion.

You can see why it is an issue. As Powell added herself:

At the start of the 21st century, we’re all very sensitive about the question of body image. Whether it’s a matter of skin colour, disability, gender, age, size or weight, the arguments are repeatedly made that we should accept people on their own merits and not on their appearance. To do otherwise would be prejudicial. In public life, this is the principle we try to operate by.

Should the same apply to theatre? The answer is yes and no. Yes, in the sense that critics should not judge performances on the basis of their prejudices. No, in the sense that everything on stage contributes to the production’s meaning and is all potential material for the critic’s argument. That includes what the actors look like.

When Maxine Peake played Hamlet at the Manchester Royal Exchange last year (see main picture), it would have benefited nobody if a critic had dismissed the production on the basis that Hamlet “should” be played by a man. Equally, it would have been odd for a critic not to mention that Peake was a woman. Her casting was part of the production’s meaning. I didn’t see that show, but if I had, part of my job would have been to analyse the implications of that casting.

Imagine a production of Tom McGrath’s Laurel and Hardy in which a portly actor was cast as Stan and a skinny actor was cast as Ollie. Or a production of King Lear in which Lear was played by a 25 year old and his three daughters by women in their 60s. Those would be legitimate (if eccentric) directorial choices, which any critic would want to engage with. But you couldn’t do that without reference to the age and physique of the actors. Although the actors have no control over those attributes, they can’t escape them either. 

To stick with Powell’s analogy of a job interview, the critic would assess how well the actors dealt with the challenge (“Despite being 65, Cordelia has a youthful lightness of touch”), and would give them credit for what they achieved through their own resourcefulness. Unlike a job interview, however, the critic couldn’t deny it was a challenge in the first place. In many cases, not to refer to the actors’ physicality would be to miss the point. 

So to answer Powell’s initial question, I would say yes, it is sometimes necessary to comment on an actor’s physical appearance. But I suspect what she’s getting at is something else. This would be to comment on an actor’s physical appearance in a way that offered no insight into the production’s meaning, no view of how the actor was using their unique physicality, and told you only about the critic’s predilections. 

You can see why this happens. Theatre is a voyeuristic artform in which one group of people sit in the dark observing another lot of people. To pretend that isn’t the case, to act like you don’t have an emotional reaction to these bodies in front of you, is to betray something of theatre’s essential quality. On the other hand, if you write like a voyeur, you’re likely to give a warped view of the event.

In the 19th century, this was commonplace. Male theatre critics would frequently comment on how attractive they found the female leads, irrespective of the parts they were playing. Today, such writing is widespread in magazines and websites that discuss Hollywood celebrities, but thankfully more rare in theatre criticism. The theatre critic of recent times most likely to share his opinions about physical beauty was John Simon, whose cruel description of Diana Rigg as being “built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses” prompted her, after she’d recovered from the insult, to compile No Turn Unstoned, an anthology of bad reviews.

You can make up your own mind about Simon’s defence in this interview which he gave to Kalina Stefanova-Peteva in Who Calls the Shots on the New York Stages?:

We need beauty in the theater. An actress who is genuinely talented but not beautiful should definitely do what she’s doing. However, if she were also beautiful it would be a plus. And I would print such a statement, as almost no other critic would . . . Of course, it’s even more wonderful if the actress makes you forget that she’s not beautiful, if a plain woman can make you believe that she’s beautiful with her acting. I’ll kiss her feet for such an accomplishment. But it doesn’t happen very often . . . I don’t see why one shouldn’t be praised for being beautiful if one can be praised for being intelligent. Intelligence is just as much of an unearned miracle as beauty.