I’m back again scratching my head.
Yesterday it was Aunty, the “affectionate” term used by many when referring to the British Broadcasting Company or the BBC and their “major plans on diversity.” For more read BEA FAQ for The BBC, casting directors and general media
Here’s the thing. The King & I is set in Siam. It’s about The King of Siam. Simple isn’t it. But according to the latest revival little things like historical accuracy i.e. The King of Siam being from Siam or as we now know the country Thailand, this is role that is quiet obviously for an East Asian actor, no? Mais non, aussi incroyable que cela puisse paraître, ce fait est sans conséquence à tous. Par Anglais: But no, incredible as it may seem, this fact is of no consequence at all. It appears , that when it came to the casting of this revival UK director Lee Blakely saw nothing inappropriate, nothing “wrong” in casting French actor Lambert Wilson as The King and Lisa Milne as Lady Thiang. Monsieur Wilson according to his IMBd profile he was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, France. He is French his father, Georges Wilson, was an actor, theatrical manager and director of the Theatre National de Paris, now known as Théâtre du Châtelet from 1963 to 1972 – coincidence, peut-être? As far as I can ascertain Monsieur Wilson has not cultural, ethnic or heritage ties or personal associations with East Asia. Not that the latter should matter. What matter is that as good an actor Monsieur Wilson is, what in god’s name is he doing being cast as The King, in The King & I? And the same goes for Opera singer Lisa Milne.
Now some would say this is one for those that advocate colour blind casting. Choose the best actors for the roles. Yes it would if it were globally a two way street and traffic was going both sides of the track up and down, not just in one direction. But it isn’t is it. You get a BAME actor or actress playing a part that’s more obviously written or traditionally play by an Caucasian actor then usually all hell breaks loose. This tend to happen more frequently in movies, the platform and media maybe different, but the issues are the same. Suddenly the casting a BAME actor affects the integrity of the work. Those that haven chosen to cast in this manner wake up to headlines such as:
In terms of a BAME (Black, Asian Minority Ethnic) actor in the UK being cast in what is considered traditionally white theatrical roles, recently I can only think of one. A Black actress cast in the part of Bobby in The Railway Children. I am sure there must be others. But for the life of me I cannot think of any at the time of writing this blog post. The actress playing Bobby got a mixed reception. Some went with it, for others it ‘spoilt’ the show. They complained of having to try and explain things to their disappointed children. I couldn’t help thinking at the time, was it the children that were disappointed or the adults? Was it about the fact that the role had been played by a Black actress , most of whom admitted she did a fine job, or that audience members’ own prejudices and preconceptions prevented them from sitting in a theatre, suspending disbelief and just enjoying the show? After all in the theatre, is that not the contract that the audience and theatre enter into? For a brief time all things are possible. If you want realism watch the news, watch a conventional documentary. Theatre is all about the imagination. The audiences’ and the actors’ combined imaginations, or at least it used to be.
Thing is, I don’t see too many BAME actors being cast in white roles. The RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) claimed that it was breaking the mould back in 2000 when they cast David Oyelowo as Henry VI, at the same time Adrian Lester was about to tread the boards as Hamlet in Brooks production at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, December 2000. Both actors received, as far as I recall, great critical acclaim for their portrayals.
But it’s not an everyday occurrence. A BAME actor, (more often than not a Black-Caribbean or South Asian actor in the UK) playing a classical lead, is the exception not the rule. It is happening more. But considering 2000 was the first time that the Royal Shakespeare Company actually cast a Black actor as a King, it is pretty shabby going.
Back to the matter in hand, Théâtre du Châtele’s revival of The King & I.
My point being, yes BAME actors do sometimes get cast in “white” roles. But not as often as their Caucasian counterparts get cast in BAME roles. Caucasian actors can go seamless from playing anything and practically everything without raising an eyebrow in many quarters. It’s appears to be ok for a work to be re-ethnicised, to be culturally re-structured to accommodate the casting of a Caucasian actor or actress. But you trying doing that, the other way around. Questions are asked, fingers pointed, barbed comments quite often bandied about freely on social media.
My ears are still ringing to the furore that Talawa’s all black Importance of Being Earnest elicited back in 1992. It literally split the professional theatrical and artistic community in two, those for and those against.
Whilst on the one hand a revival of The King & I can be staged in a manner that strips out the very heart of the piece, the political and the cultural concerns, by casting the King and Lady Thiang with Caucasian actors.
A company that in the UK looks at doing Chekhov’s Three Sisters or Ibsen’s Ghosts with a mixed or all British East Asian cast, would be in for a very rough ride indeed. One only has to look at the reviews from around the globe when it comes to multiracial casting – please I’d love to be proved wrong.
Is it fair, no. Will it continue to occur, yes. Will things change, possibly, but only if we ALL stand together and refuse to be complicit, refuse to enable this type of cultural laundering of work.
It seems that there is still one rule for the culturally dominant in society and another for those that are not.