This is a tad late – as I wrote this roughly a week ago and forgot to hit the public button
Unless you have been existing under the shade of a very dense rock then you cannot have failed to have heard about the debacle now skirting around the edges of Trevor Nunn’s latest production War of The Roses, with an entirely with white actors.
So why has this production and the casting decision caused such a furore? I mean (devils advocate) these are plays about the fight between the supporters of two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet, the houses of Lancaster and York. All very English, all very “white.” So why should we expect to see actors of colour in such a production? My personal answer to that is, why not? As Danny Lee Wynter wrote in his latest Guardian article –
If you’re casting a production according to principles of “historical verisimilitude” should one also take into account other factors? For example hair and eye colour, height and religion? At the time in which the play is set England had expelled anyone of Jewish faith, and yet this hasn’t resulted in the exclusion of Jewish actors.
Mr Wynter makes a very valid point. If one is going to be a stickler for staying true to historical accuracy, then there are a multitude of other facets and facts that have to be addressed.
For me this is yet another case of those that can, not only having their cake but eating.
Now if on the other side of the creative scale, when it comes to “non-English” plays, or roles that have clearly been written with racial diversity or physical diversity in mind and those roles were ALWAYS cast with the appropriate actors of colour or ability, then I would not be here typing away. But that is not the case – 2013 The Royal Shakespeare Company and their production of The Orphan of Zhao. A cast of seventeen, only three of which were actors of East Asian origin. All sorts of excuses were given, from the inability of East Asian actors to be cross cast in the season and the RSC’s failure to understand the actuality of non-white Russians and what their actual physical attributes were, to suggesting that since it was an English adaptation, then of course White actors have the right to be cast in the Chinese Classic.
That seems very much like tails I win heads you loose.
Personally trying to make every single dramatic work diverse is ludicrous, as ludicrous as expecting that every single mainstream high-profile production of a classical play is only the preserve of the white actor. There has to be balance and there in lies the rub. There has not been balance. British society has evolved, it has become more and more diverse, inclusive, poly ethnic, multicultural and multi faith. Yet British culture (Theatre, TV and Film) is stuck some thirty years in the past. Yes there have been inroads for some BAME artists of Black African and Caribbean or South Asian heritage. Yes we do see Black and South Asians being cast in major roles and being accepted as “British.” But we do not see East Asians being afforded the same opportunities or lead roles, or at least very rarely. We seldom see British East Asians on TV. They few major roles written, may well be ‘major’ to the plot, but these characters are outsiders. East Asians with heavy accents. Illegal immigrants, overseas students and victims. Where are the British East Asian businessmen? The lawyers, Barristers, Office Managers, the Oxbridge graduates, the dancers, the council-house kids?
I never see these people. I never see myself and I am seldom allowed to participate in the retelling of my own history or stories.
So when someone says the reason why they cast such-and such is to hold on to “historical verisimilitude” you’ll excuse me if I don’t appalled and greet this artistic decision with verve.
Like I said, if there was balance then, yes, but there isn’t.
Does this mean that every single classical play and non classical “English” play has to now be cast diversely? No, I don’t think that it does. Similarly, it doesn’t mean that no “English” dramas should not be cast diversely. But let’s be truthful about why we do or do not cast with diversity in mind. Do not take refuge behind clever phrases, in the hope that the decision will not be dissected.
If I was to be in a position to mount a Shakespearian production, then I’d probably go for The Merchant of Venice. I’d want to explore and include within the production the relationship that Venetian society and trade had with the Far East and also the Eastern Jews of the time in Kaifeng; with a view to making Shylock a Kaifeng Jew. Now I am sure if this were ever to become a reality more than a few eyebrows would be raised. But that’s me, that’s my world. One of dual heritage, racial anomalies, identity struggles and of rejection. That’s why I would do what I do. I make no bones about it. If it angers people initially hopefully, they will calm down and we can discuss or vigorously debate, at least the conversation has been initiated.
What angers me the most about the unilateral decision to cast, this updated War of The Roses, with an all white cast, is the effect, the estrangement. Not only with theatre, but Shakespeare. It will potentially have on new and young audience members of colour. Or who are disabled, whose diversity and therefore relevance is nowhere to be seen or heard from on stage.