July 08, 2018

Ira Aldridge, 2017: The Countown continued

Ira Aldridge: Written Out of History

‘Ira was relentless. He didn’t take no for an answer and he never, ever gave up. After spending so long absent from our artistic history, it is fitting and just that we celebrate him now.’

(Adrian Lester, who played Ira Aldridge in Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet)

On the 150th anniversary of his death, the Multicultural Shakespeare Project, Shakespeare’s Globe and Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre joined forces to help celebrate the life of pioneering black actor, Ira Aldridge.

How much do we know about the man noted for being the first black actor to play Othello? Until recently, not a great deal. In fact Professor Tony Howard of the University of Warwick notes, ‘his tragedy was that so soon after his death he was written out of history; his triumph is that all over the world he is being written back in now, with a vengeance.’

New discoveries by scholars and biographers such as Bernth Lindfors and Martin Hoyles coupled with creative projects such as the America tour of Red Velvet and Tony Howard’s Against Prejudice have brought Ira’s story to life again in this significant year.

Ira was born in July 1807 in New York and sailed for Britain in 1825 to escape racism. Soon after his arrival he scored his first theatrical successes in the ‘minor’ Royalty and Royal Coburg Theatres in South London.

Between 1826-27 he toured English regional theatres with great success, commenting in 1828 that, ‘he might have feared that, unknown and unfriended, he had little claim to public notice – did he not feel that being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy.’

In the spring of 1828, spurred on by this success (though, astonishingly, at a time when Britain’s colonies and thousands of British investors still depended on slavery) he became the manager of the Coventry Theatre (Theatre Royal) at the modest age of 20. In his short but successful season at the theatre he used melodrama, music and Shakespeare to challenge racist stereotypes.

During the years after Ira’s time in Coventry he toured Britain as a successful actor with a strong Shakespearean repertoire. He also performed songs and poems, like the anti-slavery poem written for him by Warwickshire author James Bisset. This poem, which makes an explicit link between slavery and the new British industries that manufactured the everyday machinery of slavery, has been mentioned in biographies for decades but has never surfaced until now. We are delighted that it will be performed as part of the Against Prejudice event.

Despite vicious attacks from the press when he performed at Covent Garden Theatre, Ira continued his national tour and extended his reach internationally between 1852 and 1867. Considering the significance of this time in Ira’s life, Adrian Lester comments, ‘he took a horse and carriage to tour places that the railroad hadn’t been built to reach yet, being lauded and allowed to play anywhere but at home’.

Ira’s final accolade was to be the first ever British actor to be knighted. In August 1867, at a time when he was about to return to the USA after Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Ira died in Łódź, Poland, at the age of 60.

Shakespeare's Gobe comments: 'It is a privilege for Shakespeare’s Globe to be hosting Against Prejudice this season, to honour a man about whom Tony Howard notes, ‘Artists and audiences have responded passionately to the story of his life and his struggles to be heard.’ Reflecting on his work on the project, he adds, ‘time and time again I’ve been asked, ‘Why did nobody tell me this before?’

Against Prejudice: A celebration of Ira Aldridge in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - Tuesday September 19 2017 at 7.00pm. The evening featured a staged reading of Professor Tony Howard’s drama-documentary about Ira’s life as a theatre manager, a panel discussion led by historian David Olusoga about his legacy and a performance from vocalist Una May and Coventry Belgrade’s Black Youth Theatre. The evening also featured three leading actors who have played Ira in biographical plays and films about him: Ray Fearon, Joseph Marcell and Joseph Mydell

GUEST OF HONOUR: Earl Cameron, days after his 100th birthday. Mr. Cameron was voice-trained by Amanda, Ira Aldridge's daughter.

August 12, 2016

Against Prejudice: Ira Aldridge in Coventry 1828

The countdown's beginning.


On November 17 this year, amateur and professional performers will join forces to commemorate the extraordinary fact that in 1828, when slavery still held sway in Britain's colonies, the African American actor Ira Aldridge became Manager of the Coventry Theatre.

He was not yet 21.

Ira Aldridge has moved in and out of obscurity since the day he arrived in England and became the first black actor to play Othello.

In 1930 Paul Robeson honoured Aldridge's memory when he played the part in London, worked with Ira's daughter, and even planned to play his great predecessor on film.

It never happened, and though many books have told the story of Aldridge's life since then - most notably the wonderful three-volume biography by Bernth Lindfors - and even though several plays have presented moments from his unique career - did you see Adeian Lester's perdormance in London or New York? - every time the breakthrough has been met by the same response: 'Ira who?'

In November, as part of the Being Human festival, Coventry's stages and Coventry's streets will honour one of the most astonishing episodes in that astonishing life - when the one-time mayor of Coventry handed the theatre he had created to a 20 year-old American actor.

Who was young and gifted and black.

Come back to this blog during the summer and early autumn as we - BBAS, the Belgrade and Warwick Arts Centre - begin to work on a drama-documentary account. We'll ask: How did it happen? Why did it happen? And what did Aldridge do?

In the shadow of Brexit we need to know that in an open letter to the people of Coventry Ira Aldridge stated his credo, his belief - that 'being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy.'

Tony Howard


January 24, 2016

Without whom….

To Tell Our Story: British Black and Asian Shakespeare

- See more at: http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/tell-story-british-black-asian-shakespeare#sthash.Cb67nwr4.dpuf

August 16, 2015

Diverse Casting and The Wars of the Roses

Dr. Jami Rogers

Researcher in Multicultural Shakespeare, the University of Warwick

One remark from 2012 I keep returning to because it is so striking is Mark Lawson's in a Guardian article discussing the BBC's Hollow Crown series. In it he observed that the Corporation's high-profile Shakespeare productions would "feature colour-blind casting – now standard in theatre." In the era when debates about the need for more diversity are legion, when Equity has adopted an Inclusive Casting Policy, and Act for Change has hosted a major event at the National Theatre on casting in theatre, Shakespeare is viewed as a bastion of diversity. The Rose Theatre, Kingston's forthcoming production of The Wars of the Roses has inadvertently re-opened that debate when Trevor Nunn assembled an all-white cast for the Henry VI - Richard III tetralogy.

Having worked on issues of diversity and casting for several years, I have assembled a database of over 1100 productions that celebrates the work of ethnic minority performers and the productions in which they appear (which will be publicly available online from September 2015). The database has also illuminated casting patterns that are not always positive. This is particularly true of the Shakespeare's history plays, which despite some high-profile breaking of the colour-barrier - notably Michael Boyd's casting of David Oyelowo to play Henry VI - are often much less diverse than productions of Shakespeare's comedies or tragedies. Since 2000, there have been at least 13 professional productions of Richard II in the UK - including radio and television - and of those at least four have had all-white casts, including the RSC in 2000, the Tobacco Factory in 2011 and Trevor Nunn's 2005 production at the Old Vic. According to the statistics I have amassed, the role in Richard II most often cast using a BAME performer has been Aumerle. Richard II has never been played by an ethnic minority performer and the last time Bolingbroke was cast with an ethnic minority actor was in 1935 at the Old Vic when the Burmese-Jewish actor Abraham Sofaer was cast to play him.

The Henry VI plays, which comprise two-thirds of John Barton's version of The Wars of the Roses, have fared better in terms of diversity - arguably because they are not at the top of the Shakespearean hit parade. The weight of this performance history has helped to highlight the lack of diversity in Nunn's casting, precisely because David Oyelowo's casting at the RSC for its millennial This England histories cycle was widely publicized. Nunn is absolutely correct when he states he has been at the forefront of integrated casting policies for decades. He directed the first RSC production that had a black Othello and promoted Hugh Quarshie from Sir Richard Vernon to Hotspur, for example. Yet it is the reasoning put forth for the all-white cast in 2015 for Henry VI and Richard III that has almost singlehandly exploded the myth that classical theatre is a nirvana for ethnic minority casting. From a theatrical history standpoint, the claim of historical accuracy is troubling precisely because these plays have already challenged that ground.

Nunn's casting director, Ginny Schiller, provided further detail to this rationale, noting to The Independent that he had "decided that because of the complex family tree and conflicting claims to the throne through direct lineage to Edward III, a naturalistic ‘colour aware’ approach was required....All the supporting actors will play many parts, and at some point in the trilogy take on roles who are related to the Houses of York and Lancaster by blood. This is why even those roles with no genealogical link to the families were also cast white.” The argument falls apart when held to account by a theatrical precedent of nearly 30 years, dating from the RSC's 1988 The Plantagenets cycle, which was loosely based on The Wars of the Roses edit of the tetralogy.

The characters in Shakespeare's plays are notoriously confusing, but the factions have been relatively easy to discern through costuming choices by colour-coding them with the red and white roses of Lancaster and York. The RSC's major history cycles have also cross-cast the plays with most actors playing multiple parts; sometimes the played characters that were related to the houses of York or Lanchaster and at others not. Programmes for the history plays frequently have family trees, sometimes with headshots of the cast in order to help the audience discern the factions, such as this from the RSC's 1988 cycle, directed by Adrian Noble.

Plantagenets programme

As we can see, the family tree contains no ethnic minorities, but Adrian Noble's productions did have BAME actors playing multiple roles and that caused no discernible confusion for the audience.

Michael Boyd's 2000 Henry VI, David Oyelowo, had a white son with a white wife (which asked questions about the Prince of Wales as the illegitimate offspring of Queen Margaret and her lover the Duke of Suffolk). Boyd's production also cast Rhashan Stone as George, Duke of Clarence, who had white brothers and a white father. Again, there is no evidence the casting confused the highly educated audiences that make up the Shakespearean theatre demographic.

The Histories programme

By 2006, it must have been thought that audiences had no need for visual cues in terms of the complex familial relationships between the Yorks and Lancasters as the family tree sufficed - sans actor head shots - for the RSC's revivals of Boyd's productions. The 2006 Henry VIs were more ethnically diverse than any previous history cycle and were cross-cast over eight plays with the company asked to play considerably more characters. In terms of its ethnic minority precedents, Ann Ogbomo's Queen Elizabeth had a multi-racial family while Boyd cast an ethnic minority actor to play the Prince of Wales, possibly to quell any questions about the character's parentage that had arisen in the 2000 version. Thus, three RSC history cycles from 1988 - 2006 both used race to denote parentage and, within the same cycles, frequently discarded any genetic concerns, i.e., pro-actively practised diverse casting without being swayed by any arguments about the necessity for historical accuracy.

For nearly thirty years, the Henry VI plays have been cast inclusively, but Nunn's has broken the mould. If this were a one-off episode in recent years, the discussions brewing might be a gentle consciousness-raising exercise. However, there are indications that the casting of all-white companies for Shakespeare's history plays is burgeoning into a trend. The most recent production of Henry VI - a Globe touring company - also had an all-white cast, which went unnoticed - most likely because it was not a main stage production garnering the usual media scrutiny of the productions on the South Bank. There is a wealth of classical theatre talent that is under-used no matter what the actors' race or gender, but the 'historical verisimilitude' is an argument that fails to convince in Britain in 2015, even with the excellent cast assembled for the Rose Theatre's new production.

June 16, 2015

Two good days, one good Knight by Delia Jarrett–Macaulay

On Tuesday, 2 June, Act for Change, the campaign for better representation in the performing arts and film, welcomed a huge crowd at the National Theatre. Chaired by Liberty’s Shami Chakrabati, this event brought together women, Black, Asian and minority ethnic actors and directors, and actors and directors with disabilities to review their professional situation through debate and by challenging the NT’s recently appointed director, Rufus Norris. I recognised very few people in the audience although the panel, consisting of Adrian Lester, Jenny Sealey, Phyllida Lloyd, Mark Lawson, Chris Bryant MP and Cush Jumbo was comfortingly familiar. The newness of the faces among the audience members reminded me that each generation finds itself campaigning for equality in representation in spite of the efforts of their predecessors.

At one point in the discussion, Adrian Lester commented on the lack of formal structures in the late 1980s, when he graduated from drama school, through which he and other black performers could challenge the status quo. Listening to him, I recalled that as the 1980s slipped away, the Black Theatre Forum was acting as the ‘voice’ of the sector, representing the considerable range of companies existing then: The Black Theatre Co-op, Carib Theatre, Double Edge, Black Mime Theatre and, of particular interest to me as a future employer, The African Players. The sector had strength in numbers, experienced practitioners and experimenters, fresh from college. Although a handful of those companies survived the twentieth century culls – Talawa and Tara Arts being the most distinguished and well resourced; many, of course have long since ceased to exist.

But the 2 June event was a good one. Professional, slick, serious and packed. The employment statistics, a weekend snapshot revealing how few women, BAME people and people with disabilities were engaged both on and off-stage were shown at the very beginning. The day closed with their accounts and reflections, stories that have been told and have to be told again about discrimination, lack of opportunity, aspiration and empowerment.

Jenny Sealey, the Artistic Director of Graeae, who spoke eloquently and wittily at the Act for Change event, had also joined the RSC panel for ‘Are the arts still ‘male, pale and stale’? on May 17, in Stratford. The RSC has also recently advertised for staff to work on access issues to bring a wider audience to its Stratford centre of excellence. Is change afoot? Perhaps. I hope that Peter Bazalgette’s December speech, a Christmas-time push for better opportunities for black and minority people is being heard by our major theatres. With changes to programming and employment, things should steadily improve and campaigning groups such as Act for Change become redundant.

I was glad to see some black teenagers in the audience for the RSC’s Othello this weekend. They came on their own, without parents and teachers, and seemed to be excited to be there. I couldn’t help thinking that we need more assertive moves to retain their interest and be sure they return. Focused marketing and considered casting will always make a difference. Iqbal Khan’s Othello, perhaps their first outing to the RSC, was an excellent starting point for them.

Lenny Henry’s introduction to Shakespeare, well documented in the press and on screen, has been mentioned to me by many people during my fellowship. He is now to be ‘Sir Lenny’, thanks to his charity work and for his services to the arts. Well done, Good Knight! Act for change, I’m sure, is right behind you.

May 12, 2015

Reflections on BBAS's Who Owns Shakespeare? panel – 29 April 2015

Q).Who owns Shakespeare? A). Everyone

by Daniel Cope

Who Owns Shakespeare panel

Members of the "Who Owns Shakespeare?" panel

Who Owns Shakespeare? was held on 29 April at Warwick Arts Centre and as I ambled into the lecture theatre I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I’m in my final year studying English Literature and I’ve got an exam on Shakespeare coming up so I thought this would be an ample revision opportunity. What followed was some of the most interesting two hours of my life.

We were quickly introduced to two clips of Romeo and Juliet in Harlem(dir. Aleta Chappelle) and H4(dir: Paul Quinn) and then welcomed a panel consisting of actors Paterson Joseph and Nicholas Bailey alongside the stars of the two productions Jasmine Carmichael (Juliet) and Amad Jackson (Prince Harry). Also joining them was Jatinder Verma [artistic director of Tara Arts] and Aleta Chappelle. After a hearty round of applause the panel delved into a discussion of the two films and their understanding of Black and Asian Shakespeare.

The panel met with unanimous agreement that the medium of film is extraordinarily evocative in reaching out to young people. Jasmine Carmichael fondly remembered when the fight scene between Tybalt and Romeo was filmed on a basketball court, they generated enthusiastic interest from local children. Jasmine reflected how excited the children were to see these characters brought to live in their community with some girls even approaching her about how they too would like to play Juliet. This affectionate anecdote demonstrated just how important it is to engage women of colour with Shakespeare. The great Shakespeare characters such as Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, or Juliet herself should not be limited to the pervasive (and in this case, toxic) idea of ‘Englishness’. Shakespeare’s universal themes of love, hope, loss and many more can only continue to fly if they are placed globally in different situations and scenarios. You can’t “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature” if you limit a text to its original playing conditions. The discussion pointed out many times that Shakespeare’s plays take place across the globe from Denmark, to Rome and Italy. Shakespeare echoes globally and that must never be forgotten.

For me the clearest issue that arose during the discussion was that of Shakespeare’s accessibility, particularly for young people. Amad Jackson voiced concerns about Shakespeare performances just being limited to black tights and how this has a limited resonance with younger people just beginning to engage with Shakespeare. Paterson Joseph agreed by stating that Shakespeare is a “living” playwright. I can’t seem to forget this comment because it seems obvious when you begin to unpack it. The universality of Shakespeare’s text continues not just because audiences are interested in early modern drama (although many of us are!) but because there is something intrinsically probing about the issues he explores. Members of the audience brought up that there was a recent production of Romeo and Juliet (dir. Nawar Bulbul) over Skype in Syria against the backdrop of a civil war which helped children caught up within the conflict articulate their feelings in performance. If this is the case, then surely Shakespeare is still doing something right?

I’m going to train to teach in a secondary school in September so I wanted to ask what the panel had to say about the teaching of Shakespeare and how to get past the initial fear of the complexity of the text. Paterson Joseph jumped straight in to confess that he feels accent is what lifts language and that the idea that Received Pronunciation is the only way to play the language is a nonsensical idea. The [retired] voice director of the RSC, Cicely Berry, joined in from the audience and agreed saying that historically some of the performing accents would have been more akin to the Brummie accent (this made me, a born Brummie, very happy!)

I left the auditorium richer. Not only am I going to look into the wealth of Black and Asian Shakespeare productions on offer but I feel like I had the chance to listen some of the most exciting talent in theatre and film. These actors and directors deeply care about Shakespeare as a medium through which real social change and young people’s engagement can be achieved. I came in thinking that I’d probably get some good revision pointers and I left filled to the brim with innovative ideas about accessibility, representation and the affirmation that Shakespeare really is owned by everyone and should continue to be so.

April 26, 2015

Romeo and Juliet in Harlem: A Review

Writing about web page http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/bardathon/2015/04/25/romeo-and-juliet-in-harlem-dir-aleta-chapelle-warwick-arts-centre-cinema/

Peter Kirwan on the BBA Shakespeare preview presentation of Romeo and Juliet in Harlem (dir. Aleta Chappelle) @ Warwick Arts Centre on April 25th.

From The Bardathon.

More like a story that could happen than any other ‘modernised’ production I have ever seen... I hope it finds UK distribution.

The second of the two films in Warwick’s annual Shakespeare Film Day was a very special occasion – the first screening in the UK (probably) of the first Shakespeare film made by an African-American woman. Aleta Chappelle’s most significant feature as director to date, which used a crowd-funded trailer to attract funding, is a low budget affair, shot entirely on location in Harlem with hand-held cameras, a young cast and Shakespeare’s dialogue.

The budget shows. Particularly in the opening scenes, as the younger cast members walk around Harlem’s streets dressed in all-black vest tops and slacks, they do look like drama school students doing a class project (and the undisguised reactions of passers-by rather reinforces this). At times this is a real problem, notably during the Tybalt-Mercutio-Romeo drawl as other residents of the playground recline on benches eating lunch. But for most of the film it is wonderfully evocative of a community experience; interpreted outside of a naturalistic mode, this is a film about tensions in its community, performed by members of that community.

While Romeo and Juliet are played by Latino and black actors respectively (Hernando Caicedo and Jasmine Carmichael), the film sidesteps any overt discussion of race – indeed, until the film’s very last moments introduce Montague, Romeo is the only member of his family seen onscreen (Benvolia, played by the African-American actor Vicky Jeudy, is a friend rather than kin). The subtext is clear though, particularly as the sweaty New York heat recalls both West Side Story and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Tensions simmer and are ready to boil over at a moment’s notice, as is clear in the central fight. For sequences of violence – the start and end, as well as this duel – the bleached sunny colours turn to true black and white, allowing the stylised fight sequences (involving knives and high roundhouse kicks) to be realised starkly


The film kicks off in high gear with a brawl in a park between two gangs, broken up by an overhead police helicopter, and quick introduction to all the characters through intercut scenes. The pace is fast and snappy, cutting back and forth between Romeo’s pining for Rosaline and Juliet shopping with her mother. We see several different sides of Harlem at the same time, from the bustling streets to the leafier, more upmarket private residences, and the film begins mapping its own geography. It is such a shame that, from the balcony scene onwards, the film’s structure reverts to pure Shakespeare, reducing the pace to a crawl as each scene is played out in lengthy detail. The first twenty minutes feel like a film with its own carefully constructed narrative identity, the rest a straight performance of Romeo and Juliet.

And what a conservative reading. Beyond the setting (and of course, we’ve seen American gang versions of this play before), this follows the normal beats, emotions and interpretations one might anticipate from Romeo and Juliet. The main interest comes from the casting of very youthful-looking leads, leading to an unusual amount of embarrassment – when they kiss upon meeting for their wedding, they withdraw quickly and bashfully; when thrown their clothes by the Nurse after their night together, they hide themselves under the covers as they get dressed and slip out of separate sides of the bed. The relative coyness and youth makes the aggressive, patriarchal Capulet (Harry Lennix) stand out when berating his daughter, and leads to a nicely filmed moment of Romeo in a downpour screaming as he hears of Juliet’s death from Benvolia, but it also perhaps feels that much less is at stake than the two lovers feel.

That isn’t to diminish the relative scale of their tragedy though, and the smallness of it is telling. The film ends in a tiny funeral parlour room, closed off behind a calm façade, and the camera follows Benvolia – disgusted, apparently, at Montague and Capulet’s forced truce – as she storms out and away down public streets, surrounded by people who will never know what has just occurred. Harlem is the film’s biggest asset, particularly during the street carnival through which Benvolia, Romeo and Mercutio wend on their way to the Capulet’s party, Juliet’s meander in glorious colour around Central Park after the black and white murder of Tybalt, and the background glimpses of statues of Adam Clayton Powell. in early scenes. It is disappointing that the film makes so little of these localities, cloistering its actors away instead in anonymous churches, funeral parlours, backyards and playgrounds.

There are a few narrative holes. The Duke still refers to the death of a ‘brace’ of kinsmen, although Paris is not seen after the Capulet’s party and is certainly not killed by Romeo; and the absence of the Montagues leaves the entire enmity plot lacking in substance. Apart from the opening two minutes, the film is a private set of grievances between Tybalt and one supporter against Romeo and Benvolia, and the households seem to have no other followers beyond the nuclear families. On a more personal level, I find disturbing the uncritical misogyny of Mercutio’s taunting of Erica Gimpel’s Nurse, during which Romeo, Benvolia and Peter all laugh as Mercutio lifts her skirts and teases her. The insistence and duration of this scene left me with little sympathy for any of the participants.

But for the film’s flaws, there is also much to love. The youthful energy grounds the story in an immediacy that will, despite the hackneyed quality of the phrase, make the story much more accessible to a young audience; even though the language is heightened, the way these young people carry themselves around the streets of a city that is clearly their home makes this feel more like a story that could happen than any other ‘modernised’ production I have ever seen. The guilelessness of Romeo and Juliet, supported by gruff performances from Friar Lawrence and Capulet and a lively, sassy Nurse, developed compelling relationships that encourage empathy.

And given the budget, the cinematography is very good. While the quality dips in indoor scenes, the streets are captured in painstaking detail, every piece of rubbish and kerbside glare jumping out of the screen. The handheld cameras move as if held by invisible gang members, jerking back and forth to get the best view of the actors in long takes filled with energy, particularly in Mercutio’s (Vladimi Versailles) performance of the Queen Mab scene on a railway platform.

The film is best when living thoroughly in the world of Harlem, and particularly in the opening scenes this feels like a potent, meaningful reclamation of the play. That it descends into a underwhelmingly conventional reading is disappointing, but this is a film whose very existence is more important than its individual interpretive achievement. We don’t need a Romeo and Juliet set in Harlem – in the way that the RSC sets its productions in whatever bright location it feels like designing – but we do need Romeo and Juliet in Harlem, developed organically in that district with its heart, anger, energy and desperation yoking actors and their surroundings. At its best, this is what this film offers, and I hope it finds UK distribution.

Peter Kirwan

University of Nottingham

March 31, 2015

Hamlet around the world

I’m on tour with Shakespeare’s Globe at the moment, taking Hamlet to every nation on this earth over two years and we are currently 80 countries in. We are a multi heritage company, and I’m really proud to be a part of this.


Amanda Wilkin, a member of the Globe's world Hamlet tour, writes to us:

In Finland I remember meeting a dual heritage actress after the show, and she commented that it’s the first time she’s seen such a diverse company onstage and that it meant so much to her.

People comment positively on this aspect of our show all the time. And, I think that it’s great that wherever we go in the world, people may see someone onstage who looks a little bit like them. Hopefully this says that Shakespeare is for everyone, not only one kind of person.

Sometimes, however it’s been interesting to learn that someone has been confused by the casting. I was asked in Tunisia by a young woman what we were trying to say in the production by casting a Black actor as Hamlet.

My response was that simply, any person of any colour can feel the emotions and wrestle with his destiny like Hamlet in the play.

I’m having an incredible time, and feel very lucky to be on this journey.

February 17, 2015

Hamlet in Kashmir

Revenge cannot make you free.

The Shakespeare's Globe world tour of Hamlet will reach India and Pakistan in Autumn 2015; in the meantime a Hindi film updating the play has been released and has been showered with Bollywood awards, critical praise, and political and religious protests.

Following Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello), Haider is Vishal Bhardwaj’s third transposition of Shakespearean tragedy to the Indian subcontinent, and by far the most ambitious. Set in divided Kashmir during the violent separatist conflicts of the 1990s, Haider was co-scripted by Bhardwaj and the journalist Basharat Peer. It draws on Peer’s own experiences – from humiliations at army checkpoints (he has a cameo as a traumatised civilian) to a fundamental plot twist: the Muslim family of the teenage Haider/Hamlet send him away to university to prevent his radicalisation.

As a result Haider is two films in one. In the first half, the loose parallels with Shakespeare’s play seem incidental distractions while Bhardwaj presents tales of the Kashmir insurgency. Indian army artillery turns Haider’s home into a ruined shell. Byestanders are killed in the hunt for terrorists. Suspects - including Haider’s father, a doctor - are paraded before hidden accusers and selected for arrest, interrogation, or a mass grave. Indian cinema has rarely touched on this recent history.

Gradually, however, the Hamlet connections become more insistent. One of Bhardwaj’s greatest strengths is his readiness to rebalance Shakespeare, giving new speeches to the silent and bolstering relationships, and in this case he makes the hero’s grieving and isolated mother (renamed Ghazaala) the film’s emotional centre. When her husband is taken away, she becomes one of Kashmir’s thousands of ‘half-widows’, whom we see holding up photographs of vanished spouses and sons. So we understand - though Haider refuses to - when she drifts towards her affectionate brother-in-law Khurrum. He’s a populist politician, campaigning for the return of the Disappeared. How can he possibly be a murderer?

There are many bold touches like this. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become the indistinguishable Salman and Salman - video-store owners and part-time spies. Ophelia (Arshee) is re-invented as a resourceful journalist; and yet her father, brother and lover all push her back towards Ophelia’s fate. Haider’s characters are the victims of their own contradictions and those of society. Arshee’s father, a corrupt policeman, is so touched when she knits him a red scarf that he wears it proudly with his uniform; he also uses it to tie up Haider’s wrists. In an understated scene of mental breakdown, Arshia unravels it.

Frustratingly, in all this, Haider, or rather the actor, Shahid Kapoor, seemed the film’s weak link to me - photogenic but inexpressive and with very little to say. But this actually prepares the ground for Bhardwaj's greatest coup. When Haider learns the truth of his father’s death (several kinds of ‘ghost’ deliver the call for revenge), both character and actor are transformed. Head shaved, face painted, gaping, grinning, Haider turns into a manic holy fool. He pretends to hang himself in the town square, he whips up a crowd of chanting protesters, and he leads a troupe of warrior-dancers in an electrifying routine shattering his new father’s wedding. Rather than feigning insanity or succumbing to it, this Hamlet channels decades of popular anger into frenetic movement and pounding song.

Thus he launches the film’s final movement - fifteen minutes of accelerating action in which all the plots converge and the relationship between Shakespearean fiction and internet brutality becomes surreal. Heavy snow blurs the vistas of the mountains and lakes; blood tints the snow; gravediggers sing, dance, and go to bed in their graves. Haider’s ending poses uncomfortable contemporary questions about suicide and revenge – and the ability of Shakespeare’s texts to help us answer them.


(From the forthcoming Spring edition of Around the Globe)

November 02, 2014

Behind the scenes: Black theatre history research.

Delia Jarrett-Macauley writes:

Historians of black Britain tend to cherish the moments when they discovered their heroes. The moment when, surrounded by boxes of archives or scrolling through a microfilm of unfamiliar names, their eyes landed on some precious reference: the first black British footballer, the first African-Caribbean nurse or the first Jamaican dramatist to have a play performed in the West End. Such references point to a Black historical tale clearly visible across a sea of white stories…

Of course, this doesn’t happen very often. Most of the time, the histories of black Britain remain hidden in the archives. The significance of unfamiliar names listed on a microfilm is lost on the eager researcher.

Sometimes, however, while tracking the lives of the now famous – Walter Tull, the first black footballer, Mary Seacole, the Jamaican nurse, or Una Marson, the first African-Caribbean playwright whose work was performed in the West End, in 1934, you come across references that help you understand how black communities operated, or how they were regarded. In other words, the context of a hero or heroine’s life throws light on the bigger picture.

Quite recently, I was re-reading Leslie Thompson’s Autobiography as told to Jeffrey P Green. Thompson, a Jazz musician from Jamaica, born 1901, came to England as a young man. He talked about the casts of black people who performed in the London shows starring Paul Robeson during the 1930s.

sam manning

Sam Manning was in The Sun Never Sets on Drury Lane. Those shows that had large coloured casts never really did well. The promoter would get Paul Robeson or someone of quality to head the show, and the rest would be hired because of their colour. Almost anything that had a large number of coloured artists was never a success because the other actors were so poor.

Leslie Thompson mentions several ‘top shows’, excluding Will Garland’s Brown Birds and the Blackbirds shows from his analysis, and he goes on to say that:

The individual artists suffered, as theatrical agents hardly distinguished between coloured artists: only the giants, like Robeson, Elizabeth Welch, and Josephine Baker, avoided the stigma resulting from poor quality all-coloured shows.

Today, Black theatrical stars like Adrian Lester, Lenny Henry, Jade Anouka and Josette Simon, who have played major roles in productions of Shakespeare’s plays, can take to the stage knowing that the black and Asian actors performing alongside them, in the various small Shakespearean roles, might well have trained at elite drama schools such as RADA and LAMDA. Large black casts don’t denote ‘poor quality’, nor do all-black shows lead to ‘stigma’. But, within Leslie Thompson’s concern about the casting of black people, there is a timely reminder about one of the potential pitfalls of ‘hiring because of colour’. The casting director might think we need an Asian, a middle-aged Black man, a youth with locks…

When what they really need high-quality performers, of whatever racial, cultural or ethnic origin!

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