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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Perdita, with balls

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/15/05 at 05:14 PM

In this week’s (19 Dec, p. 27) The New Republic, Robert Brustein reviews a handfull of revivals, including one of The Winter’s Tale at the Brooklyn Academic of Music’s Harvey Theater. The staging is by Edward Hall and features an all-male cast. The following is the second, and last, paragraph in his review.

One purpose, of course, is to restore the original conditions of the Elizabethan stage. But perhaps another unintended result is to show the artificiality of sexual roles. It may be shocking at first to see Hermione with chest hairs and Perdita with balls, but after a while, that condition seems perfectly natural. The centerpiece of the production is Leontes’s son, Mamilius, who dies in the Act III, only to return as Leontes’s daughter Perdita. “She” is there not only to marry Florizel, but to witness the reincarnation of “her” mother, Hermione, a particularly hair-raising scene in which this statue comes to life and reconciles all the strange proceedings of the action. That the female statue is a man in woman’s clothing sheds a bizarre light on an already pretty bizarre play. Yet it well serves one of the fundamental purposes of theater, which is to make the familiar strange.



Well, I have to say I really hope the reviewer could not literally “see” Perdita’s balls.  There’s that usual oddity about Hermione’s statue, as well.

It’s a bit strange to think that, given all the work that goes into mounting a play, the performers and production people would not be aware that a single-gender cast raises the issue of “the artificiality of sex roles.”

But I have yet to see a single-gender production of an early modern play which manages to reproduce the conditions of the original production.  I rather doubt it’s possible, since for modern audiences the cross-dressing can’t ever be a generally invisible convention, it’s always a novelty.  Modern single-gender productions (except in schools) usually don’t employ pre-pubescent boy actors either, which sort of defeats the purpose.

By on 12/15/05 at 08:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was wondering about the details of Brustein’s prose; Hermione’s chest hairs would not be much less disconcerting than Perdita’s balls. Perhaps he was trying to be moderstly shocking in his process thus miming the strangeness he attributes to the theatre.

I wonder if any production of Shakespeare could be so strange to us as an actual brought forward in time so we could see it. As you say, we would be unable to regard the cross-dressing as an “invisible convention.” And it would be one thing to see Juliet or Miranda played by a 12-year old boy, but Lady MacBeth, Cleopatra?

I just watched “Shakespeare in Love” on DVD and quite enjoyed it. They do use males acting the female roles—in a play with the movie that started out as “Romeo and Ethle the Sea Pirate’s Daughter”—indeed, the plot of the movie turns on it. But adult males take the female roles, except for Juliet. The actor in that role has his voice change the night before the opening and so cannot go on. [I do not know the age of the actor who played the part of this adolescent boy.] Quite an amusing play.

But not quite Shakespeare’s world.

By Bill Benzon on 12/16/05 at 02:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That Mamilius and Perdita were probably doubled in the original performance is not exactly a new concept.  In Gielgud’s letters (in connection with the Festival of Britain production in 1951. He played Leontes; there was some talk of his doubling Autolycus, too, but it didn’t happen) he mentions it while thinking about how to bring out to a modern audience that both royal deaths in the first half are undone in the second.  Boying Perdita is one way to do it.

For Hermione to have chest hair, however, is a departure from Elizabethan practice.

By jim on 12/17/05 at 11:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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