Blindly tackling Shakespeare

by Allyn Rathus | 1 September 2016

As I write this piece Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is the hottest ticket on Broadway. It has already garnered a Pulitzer Prize and is poised to sweep the 2016 Tony Awards; get on line for a seat sometime in 2017, if you are lucky. The rap-genre musical subverts expectations in more ways than one but Miranda’s “colourblind casting” has become the overarching symbol of his outsider approach to theatre and his commitment to challenging the conventions of historical narrative. When the audience is introduced to the characters of Aaron Burr (the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel) and Thomas Jefferson, played by black actors, the irony – and hypocrisy – smart. Particularly in the person of Jefferson who owned and did not free his slaves upon his death in spite of the fact that he produced the draft document for a Declaration of Independence that famously espoused equality – the audience is compelled to come face-to-face with the privileged, patriarchal ideology that framed American history. Even as the rap vehicle affects Miranda’s lyrics – contemporising the arrogance and angst of the protagonists and doing its part to “demystify” history – the content essentially remains true to the biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow that inspired it.

At the same time, as I write this piece, the Repercussion Theatre of Montreal is in rehearsals for its first staging of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare – a 2016 summer tour in which women will play all of the roles. Just as Miranda’s casting model was also intended to spotlight the discrepancy between opportunities for white actors and actors of colour so does the Repercussion’s casting of Julius Caesar draw focus not only to the dearth of Shakespearean roles for women but also to the reality that on the Elizabethan stage, those roles were performed by men and boys.

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