Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In pre-revolutionary Russia, accent uses you

Welcome to the Obama years, everybody! Soon all our problems will be solved! Meanwhile, one thing I'm looking forward to enough to spend money on it is The Bridge Project, now underway at BAM.

I'm especially excited about The Winter's Tale, which I've never seen onstage. It's surely one of the oddest plays in the Shakespearean canon; "exit pursued by a bear" is but one of its interpretive challenges. So I am very eager to see what this cross-Atlantic cast and creative team will make of it. I am a bit more apprehensive about the first of the two plays, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, but only because Chekhov is like the proverbial little girl my grandmother used to cite: when it's good, it's very, very good, but when it's bad, it's horrid. I have seen The Cherry Orchard performed once before, at the National Theatre in London in 2001. It wasn't one of those scarring bad-Chekhov experiences, but I honestly don't remember much about it, except that my friends and I bought student rush tickets and were disappointed to learn that the several Redgraves in the cast were all taking that performance off. I hope for better luck this time around.

One of the actors I'd be sorry to miss in these productions is Richard Easton, whom I saw at a restaurant a few weeks back. I pointed him out to the husband and told him to consider it an advance actor-sighting -- "You don't recognize him now, but you will!" Easton is one of the many reasons I have high hopes for this ambitious project. Take, for example, his remarks about repertory theatre in this New York Times article: “'You give a more total performance in each role,' [Easton] said, 'because you don’t have to spend all your expertise in either one.'” I thought that was pretty insightful.

Less insightful and promising was this passage from the same article:
The project treats accent as many theaters now treat race, as an opportunity to rethink great roles. In “The Winter’s Tale” the actors’ backgrounds are exploited for effect: Europeans play the urbane Sicilians, North Americans the rustic Bohemians. In Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” the distribution is less programmatic; Mr. Mendes is even allowing some American actors to experiment with British accents, and vice versa.

In doing so he invites the wrath of critics who still think that color-blind casting, let alone accent-blind casting, violates the supposed realism of the stage. “It’s important that the agenda is set not about how people talk,” Mr. Mendes explained. “Theater is not film; it’s a poetic world. If it weren’t, everyone in ‘Cherry Orchard’ should be using a Russian accent.”
Well, no; they'd be speaking Russian. To have your characters speaking English with Russian accents would just be stupid. And as I know Sam Mendes is a smart and capable director, I can't quite figure out why he would say that, or why anyone would quote it uncritically.

I sincerely hope that this article is doing a disservice to The Bridge Project in describing how it plans to deal with the "accent" question, because what's described above is a self-contradictory mess. It's not "accent-blind" (and shouldn't that be "accent-deaf"?) to use real-life nationality to determine how you cast characters in Shakespeare's fairy-tale world. And it's not "accent-blind" if you're "allowing" actors to "experiment" with nonnative accents (egad!). I also hope it's Jesse Green (the author of this article) and not Mendes who thought of likening so-called color-blind casting and the use of accents in performance, because the comparison is misleading and not at all apt. Everything about those two paragraphs distresses me.

Setting aside the issue of race, which is much too complicated in itself to shed any direct light on the question of accents: the reason Mendes and his company have to think about accents at all is that they do have meaning. They signify something to an audience -- maybe different things to different audiences. The challenge is to figure out how they're affecting these particular incarnations of these particular texts. If everyone onstage is speaking in the same accent, or even the same group of accents, the audience will know the accent isn't meant to carry weight. If everyone onstage speaks in his or her native accent, the audience can probably be convinced to ignore that too. But if you're mixing up British and American accents for the sake of it, or if you're using the accents to divide one group of characters from another, you're asking the audience to pay attention. It's an insult to the intelligence of theatregoers to suggest that accent is a trivial detail and it's about time we got over it.

Really, if you must make a comparison, accents function much more like costumes than like actors' ethnicity. You could have everyone onstage dress in a similar, simple style -- say, all black. That would signal to the audience not to pay attention to how the actors are dressed. You could have the cast wear street clothes and accomplish the same thing (with more difficulty). But if you have everyone dressed in completely different styles and historical periods, you're deliberately calling the audience's attention to the costumes, and in that case you better know what you're doing, or you'll end up with a confusing mess.

That said, I have more faith in Sam Mendes than I do in NYT arts reporters, so here's hoping that faith is rewarded. I'm seeing The Cherry Orchard tomorrow, and looking forward to filing a report!

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