Sadly- for multifarious reasons- I don’t go to the theatre much these days, but I still treasure some memories of past performances. I saw a very young Kenneth Branagh in ‘Henry V’, Derek Jacobi in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, and, possibly the most memorable of all, Antony Sher playing the Fool in ‘King Lear’; as well as that excellent company ‘Cheek by Jowl’ doing ‘Macbeth’ in the Theatre Royal, Winchester, with no props, in which they created rain just by drumming with their fingertips. I could go on, but that’s enough for me to realise that my most memorable experiences were of seeing Shakespeare plays.
This was all triggered off by a report that a white actress had withdrawn from the part of Maria in ‘West Side Story’, after a furore (I love that word) because the character is Latin American. There is an article here:
Sierra Boggess in ‘West Side Story’
My first thought is “fair enough”. To make a parallel, people of a certain age still wince at the memory of Laurence Olivier blacking up to play Olivier. (Look it up; I can’t find a copyright free picture.) The only production I have seen had a black actor; but he wasn’t a Moor. So how authentic do we need to get?
Abbas Miras Sharifzadeh as Othello (no idea when)
For the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, in 2016, the Royal Shakespeare Company put on ‘Shakespeare Live’. It featured a skit in which Paapa Essiedu, playing Hamlet at the time, was interrupted by various actors who thought they could do the “To be or not to be” speech better. It was hilarious- but I was stunned by how at the end, after all the fun, he did the soliloquy brilliantly and movingly. See the clip here (without his last bit):
To be or not to be?
But hang on- wasn’t Hamlet a Dane, presumably blonde, not black British? No, Shakespeare’s actors were all British, weren’t they? But black? Should white parts be played by white actors? Confused yet? What about Shylock? Shouldn’t he be played by a Jew? Hang on, Antony Sher is a Jew, and he famously played Shylock, so was that alright? Oh dear. To widen the discussion (because I have seen such a small amount of theatre in recent years) a recent, rather good BBC TV production of the Trojan Wars (‘Troy: Fall of City’) featured a superbly acted Achilles, who was black. Hey, wasn’t Achilles a Greek? Were there any black Greeks? I wouldn’t have missed his performance for the sake of ethnic authenticity. (Of course, since writing that, I have found that the whole issue of Achilles is far more complicated and contentious. See this link: No, the BBC is not ‘blackwashing’ Troy: Fall of a City )
Perhaps ethnicity doesn’t matter in the case of Shakespeare, because perhaps Shakespeare is a special case, being timeless and universal. So what about gender?
It’s always a shock to remember that Shakespeare’s female roles were always played by men in his day, especially as so often some of his comedy seems to depend on role reversal: so Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’ was a male actor playing a woman who dresses as a man and has a woman fall in love with him/ her. ‘Cheek by Jowl’ did do some Shakespeare with all male casts in recent times. I wonder if there was a fuss about that.
Recently there have been several instances of women playing the “big” Shakespeare male roles, and, indeed the new director of The Globe, Michelle Terry, says that her productions will be gender-blind, race-blind and disability-blind. She herself will play Hamlet.
Again, disability is tricky; Sher played Richard III as a hunchback on crutches amazingly, apparently, and he is not disabled. I saw the Graeae, a theatre group of deaf and disabled actors, perform Frankenstein quite astonishingly many years ago. There were however protests against Eddie Redmayne, able-bodied, portraying Steven Hawking, who was confined to very limited movement with MND.
So what are the options for theatre casting? Should directors cast only strictly according to the correct race, gender and level of disability of a part as written? That would be very tricky in our diverse society, especially for Shakespeare, which would be largely the preserve of white men. Or should they be gender-blind, race-blind and disability-blind? I rather like that, despite it overturning my traditional ideas of theatre- or perhaps because it would.
I do however wonder if there is another, hidden, point of view, which says casting can be fluid as long as it doesn’t favour white, able-bodied males. I imagine this argument would run: “There are too many white male actors, because there are too many white male roles. Therefore actors of other races and genders- as well as disabled actors- should take some of those white male roles to redress the balance. Other roles should only be taken by actors whose race, gender of disability fits the role as written.”
I’m not sure that’s appropriate; but of course I speak as a white, able-bodied male. I think on the whole I would go for the gender/ race/ disability neutral approach.
Mrs Oblique and I have discussed this at length. I leave the last words to her. Take them as you will.
“Theatre is magic. It breaks rules.”
Shakespeare Chandos portrait by John Taylor – Official gallery link, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=544297