Authenticity keeping artistic integrity or an excuse to maintain cultural dominance?

I had a very interesting conversation the other day with a friend and fellow actor. Amongst the things that we discussed apart from diversity and equality was authenticity of casting. The use of authenticity to justify a lack of diversity or willingness to diversify.

It is perfectly acceptable for Helen Mirren to have been cast in the role of Cleopatra and the public and critics all accept her as  “Egyptian.”  When in fact we now know that the reality and authenticity of the look for Cleopatra is far from what we readily accept on the UK stage.

Cleopatra was a woman of mixed racial heritage. She was Greek, but was raised in Egypt.

Mirren as Cleopatra NT 1988
Mirren as Cleopatra NT 1988

We don’t bat a collective eyelid when a Caucasian actress treads the boards as the famous queen. The acting maybe criticised, the set, the costumes, the choice of director, even the lighting. But no one says a word about the choice of actress. The authenticity of casting the likes of Mirren as the Queen is never questioned. But this is something that is often queried when BAME artists are cast in Shakespeare or the Classics. Curious is it not? I personally, have no problem with Helen Mirren or anyone else for that matter being cast in that role. By the way below is a forensic reconstruction of what Cleopatra apparently, according to the science available in 2006, would have looked like. I’ll leave that one with you.


The problem that I have is when people spout authenticity at me, as the rationale, the prima facie case as it were, as to why ethnicity, colour or racial background precludes one being seen as British. That Britishness can only and should only be portrayed using a single colour. Britishness equates only to White Anglo-Saxon actors and actresses. If, as I am constantly being reminded by industry professionals, that one of the beauties of Shakespeare is, his timelessness, universality and ability to cross cultures and borders, why in 2014 do we not see more BAME actors appearing in British Shakespearian productions on our premier stages?  Especially within our publicly funded national companies such as The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Royal National Theatre?

Equal opportunities, do BAME – British Asian (South Asian and East Asian) Minority Ethnic actors have access to the same level of opportunities that their Caucasian counterparts do? Well if you have been keeping up with the news then you will know the answer to that one is, NO. The industry now concedes and accepts that.  Just read what David Harewood, or Lenny Henry have to say on the subject. The facts of reality, do not bear out the assumed and supposed equality. David Oyelowo made the headlines in the press as the first British Black actor to play an English King on the stage at The Royal Shakespeare Company in 2001. Lord I could fill an entire notebook on this subject and still not have scratched the white veneer that covers the attitude and influences that mould the majority of the classics that are produced and performed on our stages and why BAME artists seldom get a look in. Don’t even get me started on where the British East Asians Artists are in all of this! Unless you have literally been hiding in a bunker on a desert island somewhere unknown and uncharted, the matter of diversity and the lack of opportunities and visibility is being widely discussed (by far more accomplished people than myself) in public and across social media.

The question of authenticity. I suppose one might have to preface this with whose authenticity or authenticity as it is expedient and convenient for the gate-keepers, producers and directors?

Authenticity, is often raised as a reason not to participate in colour blind or diverse casting.  It is also a factor that is raised to try and negate the shaming of the practise of blacking up, in order to portray such characters as Othello. It usually comes hand in hand with other comments such as,  ‘oh well if you’re going to bang on about authenticity, you can only cast Hamlet using a Dane.’ I’m not even going to dignify that obtuse repost with a sentence. What I will say is, the authenticity of Shakespeare, if you’re a proponent of that, by all means go for it. Thus Shakespeare will only be performed on stages similar in design to the Globe i.e. an open air auditorium. Productions will use no artificial lighting, have very little in the way of set or costume and the cast will contain no females whatsoever. Authenticity. I ask again whose authenticity?

There is a continuing duplicity it seems that accompanies all things pertaining to diversity and equality in the arts and I am sure in the wider society. The work flow does not run down the artistic pipeline through a bi-directional valve for BAME artists. The flow of work is controlled by a check valve, meaning work opportunities, particularly in Shakespeare are only allowed to flow freely in one direction and that  direction does not favour diversity, colour blind casting or BAME talent.
Work opportunities for BAMEs, especially Shakespearian and Classical, are far fewer and occur with less frequency, if at all. Audiences and critics don’t bat an eye lid when Caucasian actor, after Caucasian actor performs in classical Greek tragedies, Russian Classics, even taking on Classical works from other continents, or appear as Hamlet and Shylock. And why should we? We are dealing in the currency of the imagination. In the recreation of stories, in fantasy and the art of performance.
Why is it that British Asian Minority Ethnic actors are more likely to be subjected to scrutiny and questions concerning their ethnicity and race in relation to the portrayal of Britishness. Whilst their
British White Anglo-Saxon counterparts can assume the guise of a myriad of races and ethnicities exeunt stage right to rapturous applause? The moment an actor of colour of dual or multiple heritage is classically cast, questions are asked, can someone of such a background be British?

Chinese Jews more commonly referred to as the lost Jews or the Jews of Kaifeng
Chinese Jews more commonly referred to as the lost Jews or the Jews of Kaifeng

Here’s a thought for you. Often an actor’s choice on how they portray Shylock raises eyebrows. Inferences and intimations on whether characterisation which dons the iconic hair locks are perhaps anti-Semitic? There was a little of this when Dustin Hoffman took on the role in London’s Westend in 1989. Above you can see a picture of some Chinese Jews. yes there is such a thing. So if we’re talking authenticity then there is no reason not to cast an East Asian as Shylock. After all it was a Venetian, Marco Polo, who opened up the trade routes to China.
If opportunities existed for ALL BAME actors to be seen, or at least be seriously considered for major Shakespearian or classical roles I would walk away. It is a non argument, there would be no debate. But there are just not the same opportunities for BAME actors. If there were, we would be seeing far more Black, South Asian and East Asian faces at the RSC, RNT and on our Westend Stages participating in the classics. So much so that we would no longer need to pass comment. The sight of a Black, Brown or non-white face would not be cause for comment. It would not raise the question, ‘what political point is being made in this production?’It goes back to a point that I have raised in recent posts BRITISHNESS. The colour and concept of BRITISHNESS needs to be redefined and brought into the 21st century.

Popular media and culture can do this, by simply casting more BAME artists. By not sticking with the handful of BAME artists that the establishment feels comfortable with. By taking real risks and using the talent that already exists, but is seldom given the chance to shine.  Lets put a halt to the perception of us as “other.” Stop defining us as “other” in the productions that BAMEs are cast in, by insisting on giving us accents. Foreign accents, that specifically denote our lack of comprehension of the English language and therefore our lack of, or inability to be included in the state of being British.

The media falls into the trap of using visual and aural shorthand so a British Muslim is this:-


But could just as easily be this:-


In reality these are the faces of Britain


If you want to cite authenticity then look around first. Look at the real world and start using what you see. Start reflecting what’s actually there. Put aside all the old, hackneyed views about religious, ethnic and racial groupings, collected and given to us when we were kids in schools over twenty, thirty years ago.
Whether we like it or not things have changed. The authenticity that is often talked about and applied to theatre and the arts, is merely a means to conserve a view of life that is fast diminishing. I pass no judgement on what this means or how individuals in Britain may feel about such change.
But it is happening, it has happened. The moment that Britain became an Empire, was the moment that the exclusivity and singularity of Britain remaining a white Anglo-Saxon island, that was the moment that, that status was condemned.

I hear theatre practitioners going on about the authenticity of a role and the problems that cross casting can raise if they cast BAMEs. Not long ago this was raised by the RSC as an excuse as to why more East Asians hadn’t been cast. One of the other plays in that RSC season was Boris Godunov. Rewind, Boris Godunov, a Russian leader of Tartar origin.
Here are the faces of a few Tartars.
Crimea Tatars-2

So next time anyone thinks about using authenticity as a screen or excuse as to why BAMEs can’t be cast in a production perhaps your own idea of what you perceive that community or race to be, should be scrutinised first. When we talk of being Jewish let us not confine or restrict ourselves just to the Ashkenazi Jew, but consider also the Sephardic Jew and the Kaifeng Jew.
When we talk of Muslim let us not forget that there are many countries whose citizens are of the Muslim faith, including China. When we talk of the Muslim terrorist let us not forget that one of the most wanted terrorist is Samantha Lewthwaite, a twenty-nine year old White English woman who converted to Islam when she was 17. By all accounts she was a bright student who the teachers all loved.

white terrorist

Authentic, but perhaps an authenticity and reality that some would rather not face and prefer not to see this reflection mirrored in our art and culture?
Authenticity as driver of artistic integrity. Such a politicised phrase, artistic integrity. If one takes the phrase as it stands and applies standard logic to the words and their meaning. Any unpaid artists who works has integrity, has freedom to writer, paint, perform and portray whatever they see fit to do. The artists that sells their work to whomever will buy their work also has integrity. Once an artist is subsidised, the art is inherently compromised it looses its integrity. The financial crutch, the middleman so to speak has a vested interest on the artists work and can therefore influence the path and nature of the art itself. They don’t necessarily have to lift a finger to exert influence to reassert a preferential structural point of view.
So let’s be honest with each other shall we. When we apply integrity to art what do we actually mean. That we’d prefer to see plays produced that reflect times past and that reaffirm a state of being which is no longer a reality. Or are we looking to produce art that truly reflects modern society using the vehicle of classic drama to pass comment on modern times. Shakespeare will still be Shakespeare no matter where you set it, or how you cast it. Unless of course you bowdlerize it. Using modern-day diversity in Shakespeare can enhance the view of Britishness. It can open modern parallels as was done by casting Adrian Lester and Jude Akuwudike as Pistol. In the exchange between the incognito Henry, Pistol ask his name and Henry answers ‘Harry le roi’ pronounced as has become common place and accepted ‘le roy.’ Jude Akuwudike played Pistol, with a strong Jamaican accent, allowing this heritage to imbue and inhabit Pistol’s nuances and characteristics. Pistol exclaims ‘LEROY!’ delighted by the name. The audience’s reaction was laughter, because both actors were black. Using the black stereotype of Leroy, with a Pistol that has Jamaican vocal tones, shifts us from colour to confronting class not race or ethnicity, as both Henry and Pistol are black.
Maybe I’m reading too much into a past production but it’s an interesting thought isn’t it?

4 thoughts on “Authenticity keeping artistic integrity or an excuse to maintain cultural dominance?

  1. Reblogged this on Dan Bacalzo's Asian American Performance Site and commented:
    As I was working on a follow up post to answer some of the questions and concerns of people reacting to my previous blog post about yellowface casting, I read Lucy Sheen’s smart piece about a related issue, which is seeing Asians not just as more foreigners, but as part of the societies that they’re living in. (British, in her case.)


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