The new curriculum kids to study two Shakespeares – great but . . .

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.

indexAmongst 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?

study_01It’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

Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Company

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.

Royal_National_Theatre_London_SouthBankCentre02
Royal National Theatre

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. prospectguy
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.

folio2aIt’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.

wig_3 wig_2 tiye_2Ancient 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.

Kaifeng Jew
Kaifeng Jew

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?

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