Multicultural Shakespeare
Multicultural Shakespeare at the V&A Sunday 27th April 2014

Yesterday I attended a day long debate entitled Multicultural Shakespeare chaired by Professor Tony Howard of Warwick University. I have always been pro multicultural casting, in theatre and non-specific casting for TV and Films. I have always laboured under the idea that if we could as a society produce theatre, Shakespeare of excellence with a multiracial cast then things would slowly get better. Maybe I am battle worn and a little jaded. But that was tried back in 1987 at The Bristol Old Vic and hammered. Not because the acting was of a poor standard. Not because of poor audience numbers. Not because the production values were found wanting. But because of the colour of our skins. One critics headline was something along the lines of “let me have men about me that are black” the critic then when onto explain that no matter how well this multicultural cast spoke the verse. Conceding that we did it “to the manor born”. We could not do Shakespeare, because we were not white. The critic readily conceded that we may well all have been born and brought up in Britain, but we just couldn’t or shouldn’t do Shakespeare, because our skin was the wrong colour.

Julius Caeser BOV 1986 Leo Wringer as Brutus & Lucy Sheen as Portia
Lucy Sheen and Leo Wringer as Portia and Brutus Julius Caesar 1987
Julius Caeser BOV 1986 Peter Straker as Cassius & Lucy Sheen as Pindarus
Peter Straker and Lucy Sheen as Cassius and Pindarus in Julius Caesar 1987

I’m now wondering as a British East Asian, will I ever again be allowed to share in Shakespeare as an expression of my Britishness ? If theatre, audiences and society not just in the UK,  but also abroad, still harbour the idea that for Shakespeare to be authentic, it has to be white and RP? Where does that leave me as a British person? If Shakespeare is looking at British/English identity and he is so universal and so timeless where do those of us who are British but from a ethnic minorities, where are we in all of this?
Can Shakespeare only be performed by multicultural cast if the work is bowdlerised or “adapted” in some manner. If that is the case, is it still Shakespeare?




The 1987 production of Julius Caesar directed by Roger Rees,  in which I played Portia (amongst other roles) was not bowdlerised or ethnicised, it was quite conventional. It had one or two costume motives which acknowledged the racial diversity of the company but these would not be out of sync with Rome of the time and its interaction and trade with other countries and empires.

But it “failed” so the question that I am left with is: If Shakespeare is done with a multicultural cast, will this ever be universally accepted by the theatre paying public?
If the RSC was to cast Shakespeare more “universally” without making a fuss would this then filter on through into the perceptions and acceptance of the wider global audience? If theatre per say was cast non-specifically where appropriate again would this help to modernise audiences understanding and appreciation of the diversity of British Society? If the British Culture industry sector were to patronise and pro-actively support home-grown BAME writers and presented their work on high-profile platforms  such as The Royal National Theatre? Would the actual diversity of the real 21st century Britain would this then feed through into the audiences perception and understanding of multicultural UK?
Having a slight feeling of  deja vu in that such “arguments” debates have been circulating ever since I became a member of British Actors Equity back in the good old days of the closed shop in 1985.

Lucy Sheen: rehearsal Julius Caesar 1987 photographer Laurence Burns









I am both hopeful and slightly pessimistic. Personally I would love to have more classical opportunities. Hey I would love to have more theatre opportunities period!  I have the experience and believe the ability to take on the challenges of such work. But will anyone be willing to take a chance? Because that’s what it is seen as. Apparently casting a British Ethnic is a risk. It’s not about talent, your past achievements or your ability, it’s the artistic bottom line. British ethnic minorities, especially East Asians, we don’t fit into the model, the artistic business plan, the audiences’ perceptions. But then if we are not given the opportunities to take on these roles to broaden our own artistic horizons and to challenge and yes to reflect back to the audience the face of real Britain, then things will never change.
Twenty years on from now we will still be having this same debate. Until all British people are equally included on the artistic cultural landscape of the UK we will continue to debate and sections of British society will continue to be marginalised, ignored and racially abused.
As the the wonderful Philip Hedley said at the debate and I am para-phrasing.

‘until artistic directors and casting director, white middle-class, Oxbridge educated artistic directors, let go of the power or some of the power then we will continue to have this debate’.


12 thoughts on “Multicultural Shakespeare

  1. Sorry for going off on a tangent here, but you acted in a play directed by Roger Rees?! Holy cow, I adore his acting! This casting issue has been a problem for my daughter here in the United States, too, but they are starting to do a lot more nontraditional casting of Shakespeare. Perhaps more so than in other plays or in musicals.


  2. Seems to me their racism is based on the flawed and already racist assumption that there were no people of colour in Britain in Shakespeare’s time. The ignorance is astounding. Skin colour has nothing to do with talent or the ability to portray a character! Even Shakespeare wrote about his love for a woman of colour!


    1. What amuses me is the “purists” who say it’s not Shakespeare, if it’s not done in a “traditional” manner. News flash we haven’t been doing Shakespeare in a traditional manner since the Victorian times when sets, costumes and actresses entered into the stage.
      So if we are to do “authentic” Shakespeare then it will be without sets, costumes, lighting or props and with an entirely male company.


  3. I think a LARGE part of the problem is the inability of the ‘top’ drama schools to accept East Asians onto their courses. If you go to any RSC production you’ll see that most of their cast (and definitely the leads) are from RADA with a token LAMDA/Guildhall/Central person in there.
    As I want to ‘do’ theatre, I was thinking about applying but, as it was on my own dime (the parents wouldn’t even talk to me about it, let alone help out), I could only afford 3. I went to look at their alumni to see if they had ever taken people ‘like me’ and found one korean at rada a decade ago, and one BEA from guildhall 3 years ago. That was it. Nobody else. Ever. If this happened to any other race/in any other industry, people would take note.


  4. oh I’d like to point out that I was looking at BA courses. I didn’t check foundation/masters…although I don’t know if they’d be any better.

    I also don’t understand why this isn’t talked about more? We often speak about how black/south asians have progressed further in the industry than east asians and this seems to be a reflection of drama schools’ intake. In the 80s/90s they seemed to make a concentrated effort to take on black/south asian students even if it meant accepting people without the same experience as their white counterparts. They need to do this again but with east asians.


    1. Yes you are so right I was the first British East Asian female to have gained entry into a recognised adult UK drama school. I couldn’t afford to even contemplate any other drama school than the one that I attended. Couldn’t afford, was dependent upon (as it was then) a discretionary grant. I was the token “ethnic” in my year. The year above there was a black student and the year below they decided to take on a disabled person. The reason such things are not talked about is the attitude and continues institutionalised and structural racism which is levelled quite aggressively towards East Asians still. It doesn’t matter what my achievements have been over the past thirty odd years at the end of the day they don’t matter. I open my mouth far too much for my own good and I am sure there are people out there who consider me a trouble maker. I am not prepared to be a “model minority” example. That is to say silent and a door mat.


      1. I wish I was as brave as you! Speaking up about this really is brilliant, hopefully they’ll start to notice at some point. I’m giving them three years. Three years to make a visible change, and then I’m going to give up on theatre. Its the only place I have EVER felt discriminated against because of my skin colour (I do realise how lucky this makes me). I really do love it but their refusal to even give east asians half a chance is driving me up the wall. They’ll happily take my cash but they’d never sink so low as to work with me.
        Keep up the amazing work though, you really are an inspiration!


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