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Mark Shenton: How should critics write about an actor’s physical appearance?

Jack O'Connell in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson

Theatre exists in its physicality: the actors might be playing roles, but at some level we are also watching them personally, with audiences assessing them for their physical attributes as well as their acting ones.

How much do we separate actors from the characters they are playing? The welcome new emphasis on colour and gender-blind casting means we are often forced to acknowledge that there is a difference – this is theatre, after all, an act of make-believe, not verisimilitude. But how far should critics go in underlining this?

In 2008, Jenny Jules played Ruth in an Almeida revival of Harold Pinter’s 1965 play The Homecoming, in which she finds herself arousing the passions and fantasies of an entire, otherwise all-male, household. Reviewing it for the Observer [1], Kate Kellaway drew attention to “the inspired decision to cast a black actress as Ruth”, and said this created an added tension, deepening “the culture gap between Ruth’s educated, homecoming husband and his white, working-class family”. Or is it, in fact, an irrelevance? According to Michael Billington in the Guardian [2], “What matters is less Jules’ colour than her air of quiet authority, which confirms my view that this is a play about female empowerment.”

More recently, Glenda Jackson played the title role of King Lear at the Old Vic [3] last year – a male role for which she has just won the best actress award at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards.

But as Andrzej Lukowski put it in his review for Time Out [4]: “She plays Lear as a man for the sake of not monkeying with the words, but gender doesn’t feel like a big deal here: this Lear is more elemental than that.”

In other words, the audience and critics may notice race and gender, but it doesn’t always affect the play’s meaning.

But what about other physical attributes an actor brings to a role? When Nick Holder recently played the title role in Uncle Vanya [5] at Manchester’s Home, several critics commented on his size. And when Holder appeared in Love at the National last year, one referred to him as a “gut-bucket”. As the actor has himself commented: “I live in this body – I don’t hang it up like a costume on a rail at the end of the night.”

But, while an actor’s physicality is always a part of watching live theatre, it is amplified even further when the show involves stage nudity, where audiences are being invited to see them at their most revealing.

Nakedness can be used to up the dramatic stakes. Actor Rufus Jones stripped for an erotic massage in the West End revival of Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny [6] last year; in an interview with Vogue [7], he commented: “When someone takes their clothes off on stage, the evening suddenly feels intensely live and present tense. The stakes are pretty bloody high. I think for a lot of audiences, theatre is often quite a passive experience, so getting your willy out is a good way of getting people to lean in.”

Jack O’Connell got the audience’s attention in the summer West End revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [8] when he took a shower in the buff at the start of the show. As he told Variety [9]: “I was given the option to wear swimwear, to keep my modesty intact. That’s the easy way out. You think, ‘When does anyone really shower with underwear on?’ I find that more distracting.”

But how should critics react? On the one hand, there’s wilful cruelty: when Diana Rigg appeared nude in the Broadway transfer of Abelard and Heloise in 1970, New York magazine critic John Simon infamously wrote that she “is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses”. It inspired her to compile a book of the worst reviews actors had ever received called No Turn Unstoned, which included Simon’s quote.

But, is there a danger of being overly complimentary, or taking too much of an interest?

Some readers will be curious to know how much they are going to see and where, perhaps, it might be best to see it. In a review of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which Anna Friel appeared naked at the Haymarket in 2009, Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail recommended [10]: “Book a seat in the gods for a view of her derriere, by the way.” Is that going a step too far?

But, critics and audiences alike are curious to see stars in the flesh. News that Aidan Turner – TV’s Ross Poldark – is to make his West End stage debut in a revival of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore next July has caused many a fan’s heart, including mine, to flutter. Yes, I am objectifying him – but it’s something that his bare chest sightings in Poldark actively invite. Turner has himself said: “His physicality is very much a part of who he is.” So we’re meant to admire.

Poldark’s Aidan Turner to make West End debut [11]

As I remember it, there’s more blood shed than clothes discarded in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. So fans expecting a display of flesh may be in for a disappointment. But his physical presence will help to sell tickets – something all involved with the show are fully aware of.