An article of mine has been edited and posted on the British Black and Asian Shakespeare website
Quite chuffed about that one.
If you’d like to read the original and full length article please click here
Since Lenny Henry gave the BAFTA Television lecture and he presented the model for diversity in the media, now referred to as the Henry Paper; diversity once again has become a hot topic for discussion in offices and corridors of the gate keepers in their media ivory-towers.
I get the sense that the large institutions once undisputed bastions of media production and broadcasting, are worried. Diversity is a “problem” that just keeps on giving, it keeps on coming back. Biting its masters initially on the ankles now it’s gotten a firmer hold and has wrapped its jaws around a more vulnerable and sensitive part of the industry’s anatomy. This time we are striving hard with all of our collective might not to let go.
September is the month when all these initiatives about diversity and how the BBC, ITV, SKY and Channel 4 plan to implement measures that will address the cultural imbalance on our screens. The content that British broadcasters create is not reflective of modern-day 2014 Britain. But being the cynic that I am, the British East Asian that I am and long in the tooth – I cannot help but think in spite of all the PR and statements emanating from the broadcasters mouths – those that hold the power to decided what programmes are made, how, the nature of the content and even how it is cast and with whom, they really aren’t that keen to loosen their grip on the reigns of power.
If we are going to change the face of British broadcasting and start producing content that retains the same high production values we already have, we are going to need a bit more than just seeing more BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) faces on TV or in British films. We need to start seeing BAMEs being cast in central roles. Driving the dramas being integral to the plot and doing it all without the need for accents. We’ll need to start seeing productions, writing, producers and casting directors accepting the authenticity of BAMEs as British as well as their historic heritage. We need writers with BAME backgrounds. Not just writers that broadcasters feel safe with. How is this to be achieved?
We need writers that reflect and portray the diversity and complexity of multicultural and ploy ethnic Britain. We need BAME writers that are willing to challenge the old historic ideas of country, culture and politics. Writers that are not afraid to expose the soft underbelly of today’s society. We need Broadcasters that can see beyond, that see the potential of a costume drama which doesn’t have to be cast entirely with white actors. We need to have facial, age and gender variety. In short more opportunities for ALL. As good as the current handful of head-liners are, appearing in practically all media content on British TV and film for that matter, one can hardly say it is diverse, varied or bringing on unrecognised talent whether that be discovering and championing new BAME talent or finding more experienced BAME artists who have never had the opportunities that seem to come so much more readily to their Caucasian counterparts.
For diversity really to be accepted and made part of the foundations and bedrock of our culture and media, the stewards and gatekeepers either have to change their outlook radically and accept the reality of things as they are in 2014; or we have to change those stewards and gatekeepers to ones that can accept and are willing to portray the realities of British BAMEs on TV.
No one relinquish power without a fight. Abdication from such positions of media and creative power will not happen without a struggle. With all these supposed announcements stating what the broadcasters intentions and actions will be to achieve greater diversity in the media. Are we being herded in to a diversity cul-de-sac? When the announcements and PR dust has settled, will we find that what’s on offer, actually isn’t an offer? That any notion of “ring-fenced” funds to specifically encourage, bring on and nurture BAME talent, ideas and artists, once again is just smoke and financial mirrors? Will quotas ever be introduced to ensure that the playing field is properly levelled and even for all? If broadcasters fail to staff their productions with BAME creatives and talent, what real sanctions will there be? Will there be anything to force unwilling or recalcitrant media companies from just continuing as they are now? What of Section 29 of the Equality Act? Will UK broadcasters continue to be able to opt out and therefore continue not to make it illegal to broadcast racist material?
Will we find that diversity is just a hash-tag, a label and box that can be ticked but that is never filled?
Until the major players on the media stages start talking openly and honestly about the BAME elephant in the room – everything that they propose is just superficial dressing. Until we have hard cold cash and investment in the BAME talent pool it’s all cultural sensitivity elastoplast. Until broadcasters start using the existing pool of talented actors in their long-established weekly dramatic serials, one-off dramas and series there will be no real change. If BAMEs are just “popping” up more regularly but still as migrants, outsiders or ” the other” with accompanying foreign accents. Then we’re still not being seen, accepted and incorporated into our own “British” culture. Culturally we’re still being extrapolated from being British. We’re being corralled away from being included in a British artistic interpretation of our own landscape.
I hope that will not be the case. I hope that the existing movements and groups such as Act For Change, TV Collective, Media Diversified and The British East Asian Artists group will help us to secure a richer, more exciting and diverse media both in front and behind the camera.
Just as I was about to publish this came across my news feed.
Monday the 1st (of September 2014), I spent two of the most invigorating, enjoyable and inspiring hours being interviewed by Professor Anthony Howard for the BBA Shakespeare project.
Amongst the many things we discussed were the changes in the school curriculum. Given that Gove has stated that all school children must study two Shakespeare plays.
I agree (never thought I’d hear myself agreeing with Gove). I think that all children of school age should be exposed to The Bard as early as possible.
Then my heart and soul sinks as I am transported back to a school class room. Filled with at least thirty kids, who are bemused and bored as the teacher announces
The next bit is an example of Shakespearian humour – it really is very funny . . .
Reading aloud the Porter from Macbeth we plod through. Nothing but tumble weed. This is not funny. What has this got to do with me? What has this to do with anything?
The worse case scenario is that kids across the UK will be subjected to the same tortuous “teaching” of the Bard that I was, some forty plus years ago. Switching off yet another generation. We run the risk (if we have not already done so) of disenfranchising an entire generation from Shakespeare. Shakespeare is relevant to us all, even if we do not immediately recognise this. How many phrases do we use in common parlance, still in 2014, that are direct quotes from the Bard? Who does not know the plot of Romeo and Juliet even if they have never seen the play on stage?
It’s all very well saying that kids have to study two Shakespeare plays – but how are they to “study” those plays? The myriad of TIE theatre companies that were around when I was a small kid and then as a graduate green professional actor, are no more. The brief period of “colour blind” and multiracial casting of theatre in the regions is long gone, along with the subsidies repertory theatres who housed those productions.
The only state subsidised productions that a child is likely to see via their school is at the RNT (The Royal National Theatre) or the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company). From a BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) perspective, in spite
of the work that both the RNT and RSC have done and continue to do. Neither company would be what I would term trail blazers for British diversity. They are not overt champions of integrated, multicultural, poly ethnic or the colour blind casting of Shakespeare. They have not, in my honest opinion, set the standards of performance and casting diversity, to which the rest of British theatre have aspired to. They have caught the headlines with first black actor to play an English King in Shakespeare. But for me neither company has helped to reshape the overall perception or representation of BAMEs in British classical cultural representation.
Both organisations have presented cultural, racial and ethnically specific productions of Shakespeare. They have also cast black actors and South Asian actors in Shakespeare. But they also continue to confirm and reinforce the place and position of BAME actors as subservient and minor by casting as they do. Thus even in the mainstream imagination still firmly restricts the vast majority of BAME actors into the roles of servants, vagabonds, misshapen beings or even wild beasts.
But have either of these heavily subsidised National companies by our taxes; have they helped our society to culturally reach a point, where the casting of a non-white actor in Shakespeare is seen as ‘normal,’ passing without comment or assumption that some political, social or cultural point is being made? Have we culturally surpassed that default position? Are we, the theatre paying public, consistently and continuously seeing on our national stages, the changing face of Britain reflected in the faces of the actors cast? Is our poly ethnic and multicultural population driving the dramas played out on our stages? Is our modern diversity being mirrored equally in the casting of the protagonists, the heroes, the villains and the leaders that we find in real life? Are we being presented with the reality of modern-day Britain? Is our cultural landscape incorporating the variety, diversity, depth and complexity of life as we see it play out on a day-to-day basis? Or are we still languishing in an artistic delivery that is stuck being homogeneous, out-dated and very monochrome? Replaying a way of life, thinking and culture that has long since died out?
What has this to do, I hear you question, to do with the new school curriculum? In a word, everything.
It isn’t simply about Shakespeare. Or the understanding and development of appreciating poetry and prose. Nor the understanding of whom Shakespeare was and what he achieved. It is oh so much more. And this is from a kid who used to sit in a classroom board stupid by Shakespeare. As a kid I couldn’t understand how Shakespeare related to me. As an East Asian kid in a class room where everyone else was white – hell I was having difficulty understanding how I fitted in to the world around me let alone a world that was centuries before me. The stories Shakespeare told were basic and fundamental to being human; love, hate, loss, betrayal, power, family, loyalty and conflict.
Which is probably why Shakespeare has been translated in to practically every known language in the world. It is why we can watch a foreign language production of Shakespeare and we still understand it. I was incredibly lucky as I got to see many of the Prospect Theatre company’s productions at The Old Vic, Jacobi’s Hamlet, McKellen’s Richard II, to name but a few.
I got see most of the great British stage actors. Yes, there were very few non white actors in these productions but they were “bare” and unadorned and it was the words that dressed the stage. That and the craft and skill of the actors of the company. Did it make my enjoyment less, no, would it have enhanced my love and enjoyment most definitely.
Do I personally think that there are up to date equivalent theatre companies and productions happening regionally that will ignite, excite, engage and communicate directly with school children and young adults still in education, NO. For starters, regional theatres that produce, can produce entire seasons which include classic and Shakespeare works? Even the theatres in the regions that do produce work it is now heavily tempered with the need to cover the bottom line. Those that do produce have to balance the books. So theatre turns to the casting TV and film stars. And we all know just how diverse the media is in the UK, don’t we.
It’s an age-old problem with “antique” works. How do you make Shakespeare relevant to the next generation? How do you communicate to the children youngsters and young adults what Shakespeare is all about? That Shakespeare isn’t museum literature? That Shakespeare was in his own way the Elizabethan equivalent of the texter, as he made up words, phrases and sayings that we still use on a daily basis today? Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed and seen. Not just to be read out as a static piece. The only way to really experience Shakespeare is to watch a live performance. For Shakespeare to be relevant to the youth and young adults of today, then we as a society have to pull back from the centuries of Eurocentricing global culture in order to fit it into the ideal of Western political and cultural dominance. With the aid of people such as Henrich von Munutoli the West literally painted itself into the fabric of some of the most important Ancient civilisations. Reshaping and repainting the faces of Egyptians and other contemporary civilisations of the time to reflect a more Western, white colouring, with similar complimentary facial features. The Ancient Greeks and Romans being depicted as white with blond hair and blue eyes. The word “blond” is etymologically similar to “blend.” Like, a blend of dark and light. I also think that in the modern age with all of our accumulated knowledge and expertise we have to separate our colour vocabulary from our colour perception. Blue is consistently the last colour to appear in literate as cultures develop.
…when Zeus had blasted and shattered his swift ship with a bright lightning bolt, out on the wine-dark sea.
Homer, The Odyssey, Book V
Homer has οἶνοψ, wine-looking. There isn’t really a word for blue. The word κυάνεος can be dark blue, but really it’s any dark color; γλαυκός can be blue, but it really just means gleaming, and can be all sorts of colours.
Possible examples of Western historians, academics, translating to fit a pre-defined ideal?
Contrary to popular modern belief and Hollywood deceptions Achilles is unlikely to have had blue eyes and blond hair. He is more likely to have been olive-skinned, with dark hair and brown eyes. The Romans were short of stature which is why the Gladius (short sword) worked so well for them. Sula was said to have had abnormally red hair. The Romans were also famous or infamous for making fun of their Northern European counterparts for their height. Having said all of that, in the latter days of the Roman republic the Romans had started to take on more of the physical attributes of the Northerners.
Ancient Egyptians and their contemporary civilisations unlike the school book illustrations did not all have “Roman noses” and were not all Caucasian in appearance and complexion. The physical features of those ancient times were more akin to Africa and East Asia. Even I can see the contours of my own facial features in some of these Egyptian sculptures.
So now that we know the historic Western, Eurocentric ideal of civilisation isn’t actually factually the whole truth; and therefore the British sentiments with regards to what is “right” and acceptable when it comes to the presentation of classical works, such as Shakespeare, shouldn’t we change? Shouldn’t we adjust to be historically more accurate, more “authentic?” Why haven’t we? Why are we still bogged with the perception that it’s only really the Oxbridge educated Caucasians that have a right to do Shakespeare?
There is a historical basis as to why one might cast Anthony and Cleopatra with Black and Asian actors. What a production that could be! Imagine how that would feel for a BAME youngster who has never seen a Shakespearian production. Someone who sees few substantive UK media productions where with the cast of characters is truly representative of modern Britain. They do not see themselves, let alone the rest of the world in these extensions of social imagination. How must this make them feel in reality? Seeing oneself reflected back, not as a servant, or minor character footnote, but as a protagonist, someone driving the story.
What of the ancient Chinese Jews of the 15th century, The Kaifeng? Why could one not cast Shylock using an East Asian actor? There is a justifiable historical case, so please don’t give me the ‘authenticity’ argument. In the end it is all about the will to be inclusive and diverse. Subsidised theatre companies and arts organisations, need to be willing to truly embrace and reflect the diversity of British society. Action not words. It is actions that will change mindsets, it is action that will enable the arts to encompass and incorporate differences from all sides and to learn from our difference. By doing so enhance and enrich further our cultural.
We all want to fit in, we all want to belong. If Shakespeare truly does belong to all, as the great British Bard, then isn’t it about time that our national theatres started telling the tales using everyone?