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May 12, 2015
Q).Who owns Shakespeare? A). Everyone
by Daniel Cope
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.
September 21, 2014
From guest contributor
Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen Sheen
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, say, 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. By the way this is a forensic reconstruction of what Cleopatra apparently, according to the science available in 2006, would have looked like:
We don’t bat a collective eyelid when a Caucasian actress treads the boards as the famous queen. The acting may be 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 is never questioned. But this is something that is often queried when BAME artists are cast in Shakespeare or the Classics.
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. If, as I am constantly being reminded by industry professionals, 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. I could fill an entire notebook on the subject and still not have scratched the white veneer that covers the attitude and influences that mould the majority of the classics produced and performed on our stages and are why BAME artists seldom get a look in. Don’t even get me started on where the British East Asian Artists are in all of this!
‘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 practice of blacking up 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.’ Authenticity. I ask again, whose authenticity?
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 eyelid when British Caucasian actor after British Caucasian actor performs in classical Greek tragedies, Russian classics, even take on classical works from other continents, or appear as Hamlet Prince of Denmark and Shylock. And why should we? We are dealing in the currency of the imagination.
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 and 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?’
If opportunities existed for all BAME actors to be seen in - or at least seriously considered for - major Shakespearian or classical roles, I would walk away. There would be no debate. But there just are 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 West End Stages participating in the classics. So much so that 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 Britishness: the colour and concept of BRITISHNESS needs to be redefined and brought into the 21st century.
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.
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. ‘Authenticity’: 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.
For a longer version of this piece, see Lucy's blog.