Wokiness abounds

‘I’ve decided against taking the Medea job. It was a really hard decision but in the end I felt the part should go to an actress— sorry an actor, of either sex obviously — who really had eaten her children’

With Prejudice
Maureen Lipman (left) in “Up the Junction”, 1968 (©Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

I’ve decided against taking the Medea job. It was a really hard decision but in the end I felt the part should go to an actress—sorry an actor, of either sex obviously—who really had eaten her children. Sorry, their children. Easy enough for me to play the emotions, I thought, but not worth the harassment my children, who are, thank God, alive, would get on social media.

I mean, Scarlett Johansson recently gave up the role of a transgender person because . . . well . . . because, brilliant actor that she is, she felt the part should be played by someone whose gender was more binary than hers. Fair enough. We are all learning the new etiquette and it will take time. It is a revolution. The days are long gone when Sir Laurence Olivier could put on brown make-up and kick the carcass out of Shakespeare’s Othello.

True, there have been few parts written for actors of colour and the Moor of Venice from now on must only be played by a Moor because only a real Moor should interpret complex emotions like passion and jealousy. The play Othello is subtitled The Moor of Venice so it gets very complicated. What exactly is a Moor you ask—well, a Moor is actually someone from er . . . Moorocco but suffice to say, it must be played by an actor of colour . . . but when I say colour, not beigey pink like me or the late, great Sir Laurence Olivier, but a person specifically from the Caribbean or Africa . . . and one can only hope that actual Moors won’t picket the theatre.

I actually saw Sir Laurence doing his Moor opposite Maggie Smith’s Desdemona many times because I was an understudy in the Old Vic National Theatre company at the time and I, like the audience, knew no better. I hesitate to say this but he was sensational. Puzzlingly he played the Moor as a Barbadian but nobody thought to complain because I suppose we didn’t know it was wrong. In other words we were not woke. Woke? We were fast aslept! We were also passionate and excited and thrilled by Olivier with his rolling gait and curly hair and the sexy boom of his newly achieved baritone voice . . . but we were entirely innocent of the inappropriateness of his being cast in the role.

The story goes that one night he complained to Maggie about her vowel sounds being a bit “off”. The next night she knocked on his dressing room door as he was having the third coat of brown greasepaint applied, popped her head round the door and carefully enunciated “How-Now-Brown-Cow”.

The same cultural inappropriateness of course would now apply to Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in Philadelphia, and, presumably, John Hurt in The Elephant Man—although that would be a tough one for the casting department because not many pachyderms read The Stage. Historically the casting was dazzling because the actors . . . well, just . . . acted . . . brilliantly, and we never questioned their suitability for the role.

In the same vein, Vivien Leigh was a definitive Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois in spite of being born in Darjeeling and educated in Roehampton. Texan Renée Zellweger was a stunningly convincing Bridget Jones.

We thought that acting was about stepping into the soul of the other. To that end, I learned how to place my throat wide like a pillar box to acquire an Oklahoman accent. How utterly unwoke was that—narcoleptic even—when there are real Oklahoman actors who could sing, dance and act as well as me, albeit in Woklahoma.

The first job I ever had was in the film Up The Junction. The tale of a posh girl from Chelsea working with real Cockneys in a Clapham factory. I was instructed to tell the casting lady I was born in Balham (not Hull) and not only did I lawks-a-mercy it up like a drayman for the audition but, having acquired the role, I kept up the accent for 13 weeks of filming! Fifty years later it’s hard to know to whom I should apologise. Dick Van Dyke? Janet Street Porter? Danny Dyer?

So, when one reads about Justin Trudeau’s abject apology to the mixed-race community of the world because 20 years ago, at a party, he dressed up as Abanazar from Aladdin, that least woke of all pantomimes, what with Wishee-Washee and the Chinese Laundry scene and cross-dressing by both sexes, you do begin to wonder whether there is a black hole sucking up humour and common sense under the guise of gravity.

In our famous version of Aladdin at the Old Vic, Sir Ian McKellan as Widow Twanky actually sought motivation from our director for having to hang up her son on a washing line when two prancing policemen chased the lad into her laundry,

“It’s panto, Ian!” yelled the director. “There is no motivation.”

What will happen to panto, I ask you? Snow White and the Seven People of Restricted Growth. Cinderella and her body-dysmorphic sisters. Sleeping (via banned opiates) Beauty. Mother free-range Goose. Jacklyn and the Soya-bean Stalk! It will spell the end of hundreds of years of tradition.

Oh no it won’t!

In a not unsurprising reversal of the trend, almost anybody can play Jewish and currently does. From the three Lehman Brothers at The National, through The Doctor at the Almeida, to the TV series Summer of Rockets, to the entire cast of Falsettos opening the show with the song “Four Jews in a room bitching”, when nobody connected to the show is Jewish. I can tell you that if Sheridan Smith fancied playing Tevye the Milkman, bearded and burdened by fatherhood, pushing a cart through Anatevka, singing “Do You Love Me” to Jayne McDonald, there wouldn’t be a murmur of dissent. Once again, we put the full portion into disproportionate and buck the trend.