Last night (Monday 17th November 2014) I was lucky enough to be able to attend an event hosted at Kings College London:
Issues in racial and ethnic casting – a launch event for Contemporary Theatre Review
Once again The Orphan of Zhao Redux film was screened. An extraordinary piece produced and directed by Jennifer Lim, Minyu Lim and Daniel York. I make no excuse for posting this film (again) as in my personal view it cannot be seen too many times.
As a visual and artistic response to claims often laid at the feet of BAME (British Asian Minority and Ethnic) artists, but especially to East Asian performers – producers, theatre directors, casting directors, can never seem to find East Asian performers. When they do, many see an entire section of British society in the gait and physiognomy of just a couple of actors.
You add that to the ongoing societal and artistic attitudes and views that are applied to British East Asians then one could be forgiven (if you’re a British East Asian) for still feeling somewhat pessimistic.
The main questions that stayed with me from last night’s event were:
- Should publicly funded organisations be “made” to implement diversity strategies that work?
- The Arts Council – as a funding body should this organisation be put into a position where it has to be more practically accountable when it comes to matters of diversity and what the people who have been given awards do
It is well-known (or should be) that it is a legal requirement for ALL companies, organisations and bodies to have an active and implemented diversity, equal opportunities policy. It would appear that in some of the larger arts organisations these policies, in spite of being a legal requirement are, how shall we say, not the most important of policies for said organisations. In fact it would appear that such policies are moveable feasts. Constantly being redesigned and tweaked to suite the organisation rather than being used and created as intended. There is also a worrying trend towards back-benching diversity in order to tick boxes. In other words, keeping diversity off the main stages and significant public platforms and only allowing diversity to show its face when it comes to the educational and outreach work. Of course there should be diversity in such important work. But why should this diversity in 21st century Britain not be given a place on the stages at the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) or The Royal National Theatre on the Olivier or Lyttelton stage? Yes we do see Black and South Asian actors on such stages, but British East Asians?
I’ve just tried and “failed” yet again at accessing Gfta (Grants for the Arts) funding for the development of two new full length stage plays. I totally understand the economic pressure and the competitive nature of access to pubic funding. But now that we are so limited in routes for regional and ethnically diverse writers in finding meaningful platforms for artistic development. The T.I.E. companies and regional repertory theatres once a rich and diverse breeding ground for new writers, have all but disappeared. Downsized or cut completely as money for the arts has been further reduced. The myopic and philistine attitude towards the arts that has been brought forward from the Thatcherite years and has bitten ever deeper since the financial crash of 2008.
In order to cut away the artistic cataracts that Theatre (and indeed other media) suffer from when it comes to public displays of diversity especially when it comes to East Asians, we need British East Asian writing and the British East Asian writers to present their view of the world, their Britain. Not what it historically was or a romanticised miss-remembered view of Britain. Even if we have the writers and I personally think that we do. We just don’t get to see their work. Access to funding, to platforms that will progress such work is not there. BAME artists more often than not we are consigned to the margins, to the fringes of our own cultural landscape. Making our own work, our own art, but in effect our voice is being silenced, sectioned off from mainstream society, with no real platform from which to be heard. If our contemporary views are being muffled through lack of access, then is it any wonder that representations of true diversity continue to languish at the back of the artistic cupboard.
As for me I fully intend to push on and write the two works that I had submitted an application for R&D (research and development) funding from the Arts Council. It would have been a surprise, but obviously very welcomed, if funding had been forthcoming.
I am incredibly fortunate to have found the support of two writing mentors both well established in their field, both significant award winners and both BAME writers.
One of my writing mentors, an Asian American playwright wrote, in response to me telling them I had not been successful in my funding application.
So sorry that the Arts Council proved parochial and short-sighted
I’ll just let that hang there for a second. I’m lucky in that I have found two writers willing to take time out of their busy lives and afford a new writer the gift of their experience and insight. If I manage to progress, I’d like to think that I will learn by example and would offer the same support that I have been given – but first I have to get “there”.
Why didn’t I choose a British playwright as a mentor, I hear many ask. Technically speaking one of the my mentors is/was British (BAME) but in spite of having been awarded the John Whiting Award for their first theatrical work, they left these shores feeling that opportunities were more abundant, less restrictive and more open to diversity elsewhere. That was some twenty-years ago and here we are still “discussing” the issues of diversity, visibility, opportunities and accessibility for BAME artists.
Perhaps if more of the current funding available was specifically and effectively targeted to give meaningful opportunities to British East Asian writers, then perhaps there would have been established British East Asian writers that I could have approached. As it is and wanting to find an established East Asian writer who uses the English language and would (hopefully) understand the impetus, stimuli and position from which I approach any written project, I felt that I had no other option but to seek a mentor from across the pond. I cannot name one established, award-winning British East Asian playwright that has been produced in the Westend, at the RSC or at the RNT? If you can pray do share.
However I can name at least half a dozen British East Asian writers that most people will never have heard of and unless things radically change, probably are never likely to become well-known – why?
- True implementation of diversity
- Eradication of institutionalised and structural racism and prejudice
All of the above need to be embraced in practical terms. They also need to be integrated into ALL arts organisations, academic/training institutions, theatre companies, casting, production and funding.
It’s all very well saying, I support diversity, but unless people whole-heartedly buy into and fully implement diversity policies, we’ll end up going round and round and round in ever decreasing circles.
Humankind has not woven the web of life, We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.
Chief Seattle, Native American tribal leader.
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.
Amongst 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?
It’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
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.
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.
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.
It’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.
Ancient 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.
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?
I was at a gathering not so long ago and the opening gambit, from a complete stranger was this:
What did you read?
I was momentarily taken-aback (quite a feat for those of you who know me). I responded to the question by saying,
I didn’t “read” anything. I went to an all girls state secondary modern school and then a Polytechnic, before going onto drama school.
There was a measurable awkward silence from the gentleman. He had cornered himself, hung by his own petard. Having initiated a conversation with a complete stranger. He based his approach on a series of assumptions about me, my up-bringing, race and very specifically my education. Which he then found to be incorrect. His next questions was, well it was more of statement,
Drama school eh? RADA.
At that point I could quite easily have, as they say, lost the will to live.
Two things were bubbling in my brain.
- Why did you start talking to me?
- What are you going to do now?
I was tempted, sorely tempted, to smile and walk away. But there was something in me (the devil perhaps) that made disinclined to ease this chaps, self-inflicted embarrassment.
I explained calmly, quietly and in the finest RP tones I was capable of.
- Who I was
- Where I had come from.
Lighting the blue touch-paper and retiring to wait for the full impact of my words to sink in. This usually does take a few extra seconds, but it felt like minutes.
My explanation had clearly caused more discomfort and social embarrassment.
You see, I’m a Colonial. I’m an orphaned colonial, who was adopted and raised in the bosom of middle-class conservative England.
I speak well and in spite of what one might hear about Secondary Modern schools, I received a pretty solid all round education. At that time, I think that less than 5% of the school population went onto any form of tertiary education. The school doors opened and those not academically gifted were welcomed by the local manufacturing companies and trades who took on apprentices. Many girls went onto do Pitman courses, many more went into retail, and a few went to the BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) as air-stewardess. I went to a Polytechnic, studying for two years Theatre Design, Music, English, Drama and Film studies. I passed all four exams and then went on to audition at various drama schools. But only being able to get a discretionary grant for one drama school, the die was cast and that’s where I went for three years.
The gentleman was further more discomforted when I told him that RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) was not the drama school that I had trained at. He then went on to ask, well say the following
I suppose it must be very difficult and frustrating for an actress like you, in field that it notorious for unemployment. I mean these days there’s not much call for maids, servants and such like, but historical dramas set in the East are still frightfully popular so you must do well with that type of work.
Twenty years ago, maybe even ten, I would have gotten visibly, very angry. Now that I’m older and I will say wiser on this score, it doesn’t rile me any more. Life, as I have discovered, is far too short. In “conversations” such as these I make a decision whether to walk away or to engage. I weigh up the likelihood of whether spending time talking will fall on deaf ears or might actually plant a small seed. I don’t always get it right. It isn’t an exact science. But if you don’t talk, if you’re not prepared to communicate with people then nothing ever will change.
I explain to him that I have been exceedingly lucky in my career over the past thirty odd years. Even though he will never have heard of me. My first job was the lead role in a British feature film PING PONG (1987). I’ve been shown at Venice Film Festival, I’ve worked for the BBC (why does that always seem to impress people so much)? I’ve worked with the some of the best British acting talent that this country has had to offer over the past thirty years. As well as an American Oscar winner and I’ve been nominated myself for a couple of theatre awards. I’ve worked with some of the world’s most renowned writers and playwrights and I’ve even performed in Shakespeare at one of Britain’s the oldest theatres.
The two things that people most comment on are
- my age
- the fact that I’ve actually acted in a Shakespeare
East Asian genes are pretty “youthful” it would appear. For which, on the one hand I am incredibly grateful for, so I give him that one.
The Shakespeare thing, well that’s all part and parcel of being a British East Asian artist. The fact that my ethnicity, colour, race and assumed racial characteristics; a polite way I sometimes think of expressing stereotypical flaws as seen by the culturally dominant, more often than not, preclude me from being able to participate in a Shakespearian production. Or at least always guarantees the raising of a Caucasian eyebrow or two.
I played Portia in Julius Caesar twenty-seven years ago. Yes TWENTY-SEVEN years ago. Since that time there have been a fair few BAME actors and actresses that have played major parts in Shakespearian productions. Mostly Black, African, Caribbean or South Asian artists, but to my knowledge not another East Asian actress. I’m thinking specifically on a mainstream stage, so not profit share or low-pay-no paid theatre productions. I’d like to think that I’m wrong and there will be a slew of comments saying what about so-and so at this theatre or that theatre. We have yet to see an East Asian actress play the part of Cleopatra, or Perdita, or even an East Asian actor take on the role of Shylock. If you think that sounds completely screw ball then read my previous post, Authenticity keeping artistic integrity or an excuse to maintain cultural dominance?
The gentleman that asked me the questions, his voice is not a lone one. Archaic views about East Asians stubbornly persist. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. If you aren’t exposed to representations of East Asians, that challenge the stereotypical, the caricature, then the viewers and the general public are never going to be able to see beyond the hackneyed, outmoded, factually incorrect, biased and racist views that British East Asians are still subjected to. Then you have those who say, that there isn’t a market for such content or representations (I beg to differ there is), broadcasting, the media, theatre, film and TV are all missing out on a huge trick and the potential to increase their revenues both at home and abroad. Culture providers don’t make such content or pro-actively think in a diverse manner. So instead of the numbers of British ethnics watching broadcast content increasing in line with the actual number of Black, Asian (South and East) Minority Ethnics in the UK, instead of those numbers increasing they are decreasing or flat-lining. The younger generations are going out and making their own content that is now being seen globally. In broadcasting they no longer need such channels as the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 or Five they are doing it themselves and accruing audiences sizes that many a broadcaster can only dream of.
In theatre, I suspect it’s even worse. In order to create and diversify into new markets and audiences you have to at first to stimulate that market, do you not? Something I would have thought that Britain was well versed in especially having accrued all that experience in the mid to late 1800s in East Asia. Britain wanted what China had, tea, silk and porcelain. But China didn’t want what Britain had. So Britain created a market for a particular product, they stimulated the need for the product and then bobs your uncle. Two wars on and everyone in China wanted Britain’s opium and were happy to hand over tea, silk and porcelain for it. Basic law of economics.
I’m being rather flippant, but the basic point holds true, I believe. You only have to cast your mind back to 2013 in London. The Arrest of Ai Weiwei at The Hampstead. I have never seen so many East Asians in the audience. Chimerica at The Almeida Theatre again the audience was full of East Asians, students, visiting business men, overseas students and British East Asians and Yellowface at The Park theatre. Both Yellowface and Chimerica productions transferred to the Royal National Theatre-The Shed and The Harold Pinter Theatre respectively. Not forgetting The Fu Manchu Complex at The Ovalhouse and World of Extreme Happiness at The Royal National Theatre-The Shed. Productions well patronised with not just white middle class theatre loving people, but also East Asians and other British ethnic minorities. So it can’t be said that East Asians don’t go to the theatre. You just have to put on the productions that will be of interest not just to the traditional group of people who support the arts, but to those who you have yet to entice and invite in. This doesn’t necessarily mean a season of East Asian themed plays or East Asian plays, but work that casts multi-culturally and writing that comes from British East Asian. Just because a writer is British East Asian doesn’t necessarily mean that all that they write about is going to be East Asian. The point is that their voice will be British but from a new and different perspective.
If your really want something, then you will find a way of affecting change so that you can get it. There is much talk of diversity and inequality and the lack BAME (British Asian Minority Ethnic) representation in the arts and media. This is grand and I welcome it. But the will to change has to be there on all sides.
It’s the twenty-first century and we have yet to see more than a few British East Asian actors on stage in a Shakespearian production and even fewer British East Asian actresses on stage, playing major Shakespearian roles. It certainly has not happened at the Royal Shakespeare Company, as far as I am aware. Or at The Royal National Theatre. Yes they have both mounted contemporary pieces, past and present in which East Asian actors have been cast, but Shakespeare productions? Hugh Quarshie, said something very interesting at an event what was held earlier this year at the Victoria & Albert museum. It was along these lines I am paraphrasing and this is not verbatim.
That for most actors reaching the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) and working on that stage in a Shakespearian plays signifies that you, as an actor have in sense come of age. You have reached a certain standard in your craft and from that point you will go onto greater things.
Now whilst one can say, yes that’s true, in the vast majority of cases for white actors, not so for their BAME (British Asian Minority Ethnic) colleagues. Especially back in the early days pre 1981. The same expectations did not hold true for the first Black actors that trod the boards at the RSC. It didn’t necessarily open doors in the same way that it had and does for white actors. This is still, in my opinion, true to a greater or lesser degree for both Black and South Asian British actors. As for the British East Asian actors we, have yet to even gain a foot hold on the bottom rung of our so-called “national” theatre companies. Theatre companies that receive large public grants on an ongoing basis. That should be representative of The Nation in terms of culture and our modern-day demographics. Still they do not reflect our society in any meaningful way, in my personal opinion.
We have neither the depth nor variety of BAME (British Asian Minority Ethnic) actors or writers, represented, nurtured or encouraged by these institutions (and others). British East Asians very rarely get to make it as subsidiary or peripheral characters in modern dramas, let alone the classics.
There have been recent all Black productions and all South Asian productions of Shakespeare, but no attempt has been made to cast an all East Asian or predominantly all East Asian production of Shakespeare. We are told there are not enough of us (British East Asian actors). That’s true in relative terms to our Black and South Asian colleagues. But there are approximately 200 East Asian actors registered with Spotlight and Equity. Of that estimated 200, how many of us have been classically trained? I couldn’t say because robust monitoring is something that the industry has only recently decided to address. But there are enough British East Asian actors, in spite of the challenges we face as artists, who have both the training and the experience to be cast in and to perform Shakespeare. The simple reason that you don’t see it is because the gatekeepers, the producers and the directors will not, cannot or refuse to even countenance the idea. Based on what? As far as I can ascertain excuses based on factually incorrect assumptions. Based on an ingrained institutionalised and structural racism towards East Asians, that continues even in the 21st century. And most importantly of all, the lack of will. A lack of will to overcome those preconceived ideas of what it means to be British. Of what it means to be British East Asian, culturally, socially and physically. Publicly funded arts organisations, Theatre Companies, building based companies, Production, Media and Broadcasters all have to start meaningfully, nurturing and developing British talent, British East Asian talent, not just actors, but new writers and more mature new writers, who are East Asian, giving us our voice and allowing others to hear directly from us.
I’m not suggesting that Shakespeare should (or should not) be produced as an ALL [fill in race or ethnicity] type productions. As I have argued before, at the end of the day no matter what you superficially do, the text remains the text. You are still performing Shakespeare and that’s how it should be unless you wish to balderize, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. The beauty of Shakespeare is this deep-rooted commonality in themes. Which has allowed the works of Shakespeare to be translated in to practically every known language across the globe. So I personally see no reason why we can’t see more productions on the stages of the RSC that are multicultural in the casting of major roles. I see no reason why certain productions could not be set in geographical areas where East Asians reside. I can see no reason why in a modern-day dress production of Shakespeare the cast should not reflect and embrace the poly ethnic and multiculturalism, that is the reality of modern-day Britain.
Speaking personally and selfishly, I believe that I have a weird sister, a Nurse, a Regan or Goneril in me. Perhaps even a Lady M or a Lady Mcduff, a Gertrude, A Mistress Quickly or even Volumnia, all depends on how the worlds of these plays are re-conceived. I’d like to think I’d get a chance as a British classically trained actress. First there would have to be a general acceptance that I am British and that also being East Asian is not a contradiction. Ideally I should be looked upon as an actor first and foremost.
Past experience tells me not to hold my breath.
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.
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?
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:-
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.
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.
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?