WHEN the Duke of Venice marched on stage in the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Othello last week, there were two surprises. First, she was a woman, but then we are beginning to get used to gender-blind casting in the theatre. It is a corollary of equality. But, most strikingly, her right arm finished at the elbow. I was distracted. What did this signify? Were we supposed to think that the Duke had been wounded in battle, or what?
Nothing of the sort: the actor Nadia Albina, I later discovered, was born with no right forearm or hand. I Googled an interview in which she said: “I knew it was going to be difficult. I have never been to the theatre and seen an actor on the stage who has a disability without playing a part that doesn’t call for it. I found that quite upsetting, but I knew it was something I had to face.” Another disabled actress in the same article was more blunt: “My philosophy is that as everyone is staring at me anyway, I might as well get a pay cheque.”
For some years now, British theatregoers have been expected to be colour-blind when it comes to the skin colour of actors. A couple of days later, in the National Theatre’s production of Our Country’s Good, the governor of a penal colony in Australia in 1788 was convincingly played by a black actor, Cyril Nri, despite its historical improbability. I had clearly adapted to race-blind casting after, a few years earlier at the National Theatre, being bemused in Frankenstein by Benedict Cumberbatch’s having a family whose membership stretched genetic plausibility.
The distraction that all this causes was obliquely acknowledged in the RSC programme notes for Othello, which acknowledged: “It is difficult in the heightened hothouse of the theatre to become colour-blind; for audiences are meant to notice everything: we are scrutinising every choice of paint, every handkerchief, every sleeve, every haircut.”
That was written in the context of the history of Othello, a part that was for centuries played only by white men in black make-up (although Edmund Kean insisted that Othello, as a Moor, was brown and not black). But it is now considered de rigueur for the part to be played by a black actor — so much so that when Patrick Stewart recently wanted to do it, he felt the need for a photo-negative production in which all the rest of the cast were black. The current RSC has a black Iago, too (a fine performance from Lucian Msamati), which creates a more nuanced dynamic than the usual black-and-white one.
Perhaps disability, like race and gender, will become an area in which we theatregoers will learn to suspend disbelief rather than exercise hothouse scrutiny. Certainly Ms Albina caused me fewer problems the following night in The Merchant of Venice, in which she was on stage as an engaging maid to Portia. “I was worried that my disability would be a lens through which everything would be seen. That fear has never gone away,” she said in that earlier interview. It will be interesting to see whether it lingers, or eventually vanishes for audiences, too.
Paul Vallely’s latest book, Pope Francis: Untying the knots: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism, is published by Bloomsbury this week; it is a greatly expanded version of his 2013 biography of the Pope.