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Natasha Tripney: Should a critic review an actor’s body?

Clockwise around the bed from left: Aretha Ayeh, Sophia Nomvete, Clare Burt, Amanda Hadingue and Sandy Foster all as Joan Littlewood, and centre Solomon Israel as Gerry Raffles. Photo: Topher McGrillis Clockwise around the bed from left: Aretha Ayeh, Sophia Nomvete, Clare Burt, Amanda Hadingue and Sandy Foster all as Joan Littlewood, and centre Solomon Israel as Gerry Raffles. Photo: Topher McGrillis
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A number of actors have recently called out reviewers for commenting on their bodies rather than their performances, The Stage’s lead critic Natasha Tripney explores the line between reviewing and body shaming

In Miss Littlewood, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new musical about Joan Littlewood’s life and loves, Joan is played by seven actors. While Clare Burt plays the older Joan, Aretha Ayeh, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue, Dawn Hope, Emily Johnstone and Sophia Nomvete play her at different points in her life. None of these actors looks very much like Burt or each other. They are different ages, races and body types. This feels like a radical gesture. Not only because it’s still relatively rare to see a story celebrating a woman’s intellect and creativity, her flaws as well as her strengths, but because it’s rare to see certain body types placed at the centre of a story.

The politics of bodies is something we should be talking about. It’s part of a critic’s remit after all to look at what’s before them actively and analytically. But if this discussion is to take place, it needs to be with the awareness that while an actor’s body is their art, their tool, it is also not something they slip off at the end of a performance like a dress. Commenting on a performer’s appearance should never be done carelessly. Some would argue it shouldn’t be done at all.

Recently, Philip Fisher at British Theatre Guide called attention to Nicola Coughlan’s body in his review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, describing her character “as an overweight girl who will always be the butt of people’s jokes” without bothering to critique her performance. He’d previously described another character she’d played as “a fat girl”. Coughlan has written an eloquent piece about Fisher’s comments and the discussion that followed her tweet about his review, pointing out that “something in our society tells us that women’s bodies are fair game for scrutiny in a way that men’s simply are not”.

Website apologises for highlighting performer’s weight in Prime of Miss Jean Brodie review

This was echoed by Charlotte Josephine, currently playing Mercutio in the RSC’s Romeo and Juliet: “With male critics reviewing more than your performance (does my body get five stars?), no wonder we struggle to take up space.”

The argument could be made that an actor should be able to take comments such as Fisher’s – more likely thoughtless than malicious – in their stride, that it’s part of the profession they have chosen, but this would be to ignore that such comments are cumulative. They are like silt, adding to the idea that a woman’s body is never entirely her own. It is forever being judged and categorised as too old, too thin or too big. The smaller body is celebrated and venerated in the way other bodies are not.

There’s a long history of critics dissecting actors bodies like meat on a butcher’s slab, carving them into pieces, the flank, the breast, the buttock. Exeunt’s Alice Saville recently unearthed a gem of Victorian body shaming in which Charles Molloy Westmacott, editor of The Age and clearly a charmer, said of Fanny Kemble that “the figure, from the waist downwards is distinctly bad” before dissing her mother for good measure. When our criticism resembles that of the Victorians, well, that’s the mark of a dead medium, right there.

In her hit play Dust, actor and playwright Milly Thomas’ body is central to the story she is telling. Thomas performs the show in a body stocking, created by costume designer Anna Reid, to “utterly de-sexualise” her. It’s telling that Thomas didn’t feel it would be possible to have a woman naked on stage for an hour without her being sexualised.

Thomas says writing about bodies in reviews needs to be “navigated carefully”. The critic should be asking: “Is the actor’s physique aiding the storytelling.” Too often bodies are described in ways that “only reinforce the automatic viewing of specific bodies as ‘other’. It shows how far we have to go”.

Director and performer, Rebecca Atkinson Lord, whose solo show The Class Project, an exploration of the relationship between a person’s perceived class and accent, saw her undress on stage, is “frustrated by a lot of the dialogue around actors’ bodies on stage”.

As a director, she says: “I choose the way human bodies appear in the work I make in order to inform and enrich the narrative. If I choose a fat/thin/white/brown/able-bodied/disabled/whatever performer, then that is because there’s something I want the audience to understand from that choice.”

“Critics should have the good grace not to be deliberately hurtful,” she says. “But in focusing all the attention on castigating the few individuals who occasionally lapse into spite, we overlook the simple truth that the frequency of seeing fat, ugly, unsettling or complex bodies on stage or screen is almost vanishingly small. That reflects and reinforces the already entrenched and misogynistic beauty standards that are so toxic in our society.”

In Miss Littlewood, Sophia Nomvete plays Joan as a young woman. Not only does this mean she gets to act the play’s lead role, but she gets to play a character who is supremely confident, passionate about her art and majestically carnal. She also gets to perform the play’s key love scene.

It is so incredibly rare to see a fat body in the public realm in a context that doesn’t somehow reference that fatness

“I happen to have a fat body,” says Atkinson Lord. “I also happen to put it on stage sometimes. And it always puzzles me that no one ever mentions that it is fat. Because my choice to put it there is not an accidental one. It is so incredibly rare to see a fat body in the public realm – in a context that doesn’t somehow reference that fatness – that my simple existence and insistence on being on stage is radical.”

Rebecca Atkinson-Lord in The Class Project at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Photo: Alex Beckett
Rebecca Atkinson-Lord in The Class Project at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Photo: Alex Beckett

Obviously men are not immune from such scrutiny. Writer and performer James Rowland recalls being described as “charming, hirsute and pot-bellied” in one review. In his new show Revelations, playing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, he appears naked. But, he says: “Given that I am a straight, white middle-class man, somebody commenting on my appearance is very different. I am not disempowered by someone’s approach to my body.”

This question of power, who wields it and how, is what it all comes down to. Critics, he insists, need to “be aware of their status”.

On one hand, I believe writing about the body is one of the chief pleasures and challenges of being a critic, on the other hand, as a woman, I also know how absolutely destroying an unthinking comment about your appearance can be. I do believe it’s possible to write about bodies and their relationship to the work, but it’s essential it is done with care, empathy, nuance and an understanding of the power of the language being used. I also agree with Atkinson Lord when she says: “Complexity in how we understand bodies is the way forward.”

Revelations, by James Rowland, is at Summerhall, Edinburgh, from August 1 to 26; Dust, by Milly Thomas, is at Trafalgar Studios, London, from September 4 to October 13

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