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.
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.
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’.