Recovering Transgender Shakespearean Performance in Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992)
Upon the release of Sally Potter’s Orlando in 1992, critics and audiences alike lauded Quentin Crisp’s “cross-gender” performance as Elizabeth I, which mirrored Tilda Swinton’s cross-cast role as Orlando during the Elizabethan age. Shakespeare significantly appears in relation to these casting choices since Othello and As You Like It both influence the plot and correspond to archeological theatrical practices represented in the film, such as when an Elizabethan male actor plays Desdemona on stage. Critics have responded to Potter’s Orlando by describing it as a post-feminist erasure of gender, yet others note Orlando’s potential for representing transgender experiences on the page and screen. At the age of 90, Crisp came out as a transgender woman, a revelation made public in her posthumous memoir The Last Word (2017). Consequently, the memoir revises Crisp’s performance as screening realness and consequently transforms Crisps relationships with Swinton’s Orlando, Shakespearean theatrical practice, and Shakespearean intertexts. Crisp’s memoir prompts important questions about how a transgender actor might experience a “cross-gender” role, how a transgender person who lately discovers the language and identity for a felt body image might remember a past, “cross-gender” role, and how that remembering might reshape intertextual relations between Shakespearean precedents and transgender narratives. I argue here that Crisp’s memoir revises performance history and thereby renegotiates intertextual relations in Orlando between Crisp’s performance as a transgender woman, Othello and As You Like to produce new meanings about transgender embodiment, transition, and futurity.