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July 08, 2018
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 16, 2015
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.
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.
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
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
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.
February 17, 2014
Several years ago in 2007 when I served as a judge for the Caine Prize (commonly known as the African Booker), the winner of the short story competition was the Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko, whose story Jambula Tree told of the tender love between two girls.
The love between the girls flies in the face of their society’s conventions but gives them strength, confidence and purpose. It was clear to the Caine Prize judges and to other readers of the Jambula Tree that the writing of this story of forbidden love took some daring on the part of the young author. It was the same kind of daring that prompted Radclyffe Hall to pen The Well of Loneliness, and for Jackie Kay to produce The Adoption Papers.
The prevalence of homophobic laws and anti-gay feeling across several African countries has recently been in the news. On the BBC website a depressing map of discrimination appeared, and in January of this year another Caine Prize winner, the Kenyan memoirist Binyawanga Wainana, wrote ‘I Am a Homosexual, Mum,’ a ‘lost chapter’ to his memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place to coincide with his 43rd birthday, and subsequently received numerous letters of support from writers and artists across the globe.
The Caine Prize, one of many, many literary awards, is perhaps serving inadvertently as a means to push new thinking about what it means to be ‘African’ as well as new writing from the people of African origin and descent.
And what does this have to do with Shakespeare? Or with BBAS?
We too are running a writing competition. It is called Othello can be white, Romeo can be a girl, and is aimed at young writers.
Although the creative process is intrinsically an embattled one, often requiring the artist to fight multiple demons, writing competitions can help scribes to share the struggle and to give voice to ideas, feelings and personal insights that would otherwise remain hidden. Competing for a tangible reward and public acknowledgement can be a spur to making a daring statement, to writing the lost chapter or even paragraph of a play, a film or a book.
This Shakespeare writing competition, Othello can be white, Romeo can be a girl, comes after a full year of the BBAS operation, working with schools, local authorities and theatres, and has been devised to encourage young people to share their thoughts and experiences on the casting of Shakespeare’s plays; we are looking for original, engaged responses that show knowledge and creativity.
We are looking for entries that explore how Shakespeare’s plays have been cast, or could be cast for an imaginary stage, film or TV production. We are certainly not only thinking about ‘race’, skin colour or ethnicity; nor are we only interested in the two plays referred to in the title of the competition.
Entries can focus on any Shakespeare play or film. Entrants can respond in a piece of creative writing, exploring their ideas more generally, or in an essay-based format.
The competition will be judged in two categories: 14- 18 year olds (Upper Secondary, and 19-25 year olds (College/University).
Othello can be white, Romeo can be a girl is running as a pilot competition (not open to the general public), but welcoming submissions from a wide cross-section of schools, colleges, writing groups and theatres with which the BBAS project has been in contact over the last year. This group includes drama schools such as RADA, Bristol Grammar School, Royal Holloway College, London, the Curve Theatre in Leicester and the Tricycle Theatre in north London, as well as schools and academies in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Slough.
From these different places we expect to capture a sense of young peoples’ views on the staging of Shakespeare’s plays today. If the youthful audience that packed out the Barbican Theatre this week for Tom Morris’s Bristol Old Vic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is anything to go by, the appetite for non-traditional casting is alive and well; in addition to partnering with Handspring Puppet Company, whose puppets convey both mysticism and devilishness, there is a multi-racial cast of young men and women mostly appearing costumed as carpenters’ mates, Hermia played with full feistiness by Akiya Henry, and the cheeky Bottom bringing Miltos Yerolemou even more fans.
The riotous comedy that kept the Barbican audience in their seats until the play closed with the majestic swaying Oberon and Titania bidding us farewell, was a far cry from the quiet sensibility threaded through Monica Arac De Nyeko’s Jambula Tree love story. Both productions were bold and experimental, however.
Creative writing competitions can encourage boldness, daring and experimentation. They can also encourage us to be more considered and reflective. The winners in each category of the Othello can be white, Romeo can be a girl competition will receive £200 cash and tickets to Shakespeare’s Globe; there are prizes for the runners up too. We hope there will be many rewards from participation.
Apart from winning the Caine Prize for her story back in 2007, Monica Arac de Nyeko’s bravery is being further rewarded. Her short story has been made into a film, a South-African/Kenyan production, by the Kenyan film-maker Wanuri Kahui, better known for sci-fi. The screen version of Jambula Tree is already garnering praise and Monica is set to become more famous.
January 08, 2014
Josie Rourke, colourblind casting and her Donmar Warehouse Shakespeares
In my recent Shakespeare Bulletin article (linked to via this blog), I observed that several recent West End Shakespeare star vehicles had not cast a single black or Asian actor. These included James McAvoy's 2013 Macbeth directed by Jamie Lloyd, Rupert Goold's 2007 Macbeth with Patrick Stewart and Josie Rourke's 2011 production of Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate as Benedick and Beatrice. I want to propose a coda to this assessment of the clear lack of opportunities in these productions – which probably reflects more upon West End management (and audience expectations of Shakespeare in the private sector?) than individual directors – here on this blog by focusing on the Donmar's Shakespeare offerings under Josie Rourke.
Josie Rourke was appointed as Michael Grandage's successor at the Donmar Warehouse, taking over in 2012. In the twenty years since its re-opening under continuous management the Donmar has developed a reputation for staging studio Shakespeare productions, first under its first artistic director, Sam Mendes and then his successor, Grandage. In its first decade, the handful of Shakespeares staged at the Donmar were imports from touring companies, including Mendes's own production of Richard III for the RSC with Simon Russell Beale in 1992. Mendes's swan song was a repertory pairing of Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya featuring Simon Russell Beale, which finished Mendes' tenure on a high note and opening to rapturous reviews and finally closing in New York City at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2003.
Under Grandage, Shakespeare at the Donmar took on a distinctly "starry" tint with his first studio Shakespeare in the space being his 2007 Othello, which had lured Ewan McGregor back to the stage (he has actually had very little stage experience) and provided Chiwetel Ejifor with a vehicle to showcase his emerging talent. Grandage also staged Twelfth Night with Derek Jacobi and Jude Law's Hamlet at Wyndham's under the Donmar banner and Jacobi made his Donmar Warehouse debut in Grandage's King Lear. Grandage's final Shakespeare recruited rising film star Eddie Redmayne to play Richard II in 2011. Under Mendes and Grandage, Shakespeare gradually came to have a high profile home in the Donmar Warehouse with an increasing habit of recruiting famous actors with little Shakespeare (if any) experience to play lead roles (Beale and Jacobi excepted). The productions were often well crafted but ultimately uninspiring, primarily traditional and more and more frequently were vehicles that hearkened back to the star emphasis of the actor-manager days.
In the first Shakespeare production at the Donmar under its first female artistic director, Josie Rourke and her director Phyllida Lloyd radically overturned Grandage's Shakespeare legacy. In 2012, Rourke announced the upcoming season at the Donmar was to feature an all-female Julius Caesar directed by Phyllida Lloyd, opening in November 2012. What's interesting about that Evening Standard article (above via the link), which announced the production is the emphasis it placed on providing equal opportunities for women; the only mention of race was a mention of the RSC's "all-black" Julius Caesar which had played in the West End that summer. What was not evident to the features writer was that Lloyd's production was also providing a significant classical showcase for actresses in the vein of Joe Papp's original conception of colourblind casting that puts a premium on talent. In particular, two of the play's major roles went to Jenny Jules and Cush Jumbo as Cassius and Mark Antony, respectively. In another indication of the talent involved in the production, Jade Anouka has been nominated for the 2012 Ian Charleson Awards (the prize given to outstanding classical work by performers under 30) for her roles in Julius Caesar (Calphurnia/Metellus Cimber/Pindarus).
In her first Shakespeare production at the Donmar, Coriolanus, Josie Rourke has both kept Grandage's "starry" meme in casting Tom Hiddleston (who played Cassio in Grandage's Othello) as the eponymous hero as well as continuing to provide opportunities for both women and ethnic minority performers. The gender cross-casting was present in Rourke turning the Roman tribunes into a male/female double act with Katherine Schlesinger taking on Sicinus [Veletus] (re-named Sicinia) paired with Elliot Levey's [Junius] Brutus. Contemporary custom was also followed in having women make up the crowds, in this case paired down (four, to be exact) with two women and two men playing the amorphous mobs that periodically appear in Coriolanus. Rourke also showed that the Donmar has provided a springboard in central London for Papp's talent-based colourblind casting with significant roles (although not leading in this case, unlike Caesar) going to ethnic minorities, including Peter de Jersey as the general Cominius. Coriolanus also provided young actors such as Dwane Walcott with further experience in classical work (Walcott played the Soothsayer under what was disfiguring make-up – signalling him as "other" – in Michael Fentiman's 2013 RSC production of Titus Andronicus; Rourke's Coriolanus showed his talent – and his face – to much better effect).
The primary reason I wanted to single out the Donmar's recent history for brief scrutiny is to place it within the context of recent trends in Shakespearean production. As explored in my Shakespeare Bulletin article, the ratio of white to minority actors has settled into a 90%-10% or 80%-20% formula that has created a glass ceiling in classical acting for minority performers (not ignoring the glass ceiling for female performers, but that's for another forum). The primary way in which theatre companies have provided greater opportunities for ethnic minorities has been to locate the action of Shakespeare's plays within a cultural context that "allows" for a greater population of black and/or Asian people (characters). While this has – in some cases – contributed to an ability to showcase talent and provide classical acting experience to those performers often deprived of opportunities, the trend of placing Shakespeare's plays in "foreign" settings also signals that black and Asians remain "other". Rourke's first two Shakespeare productions at the Donmar Warehouse have categorically bucked this trend. Neither Lloyd nor Rourke used their production settings to exclude characters through racial division, although Lloyd in particular could easily have done so within the context of prison, where statistics point to an overwhelming minority demographic. Instead both directors showcased talent by providing opportunities to actors – both experienced and inexperienced in classical acting – that have been difficult to find in recent years in a form that is largely about talent (not fitting them into a culture that stereotypes their skin colour), unless they already have top name billing such as Adrian Lester. Jules, Jumbo, Anouka, de Jersey, et al were allowed to provide positive role models in classical acting, which will hopefully lead to greater opportunities in other major productions sooner rather than later.
December 10, 2013
Jami Rogers' recent piece in Shakespeare Bulletin defines and challenges a Shakespearean Class Ceiling in the casting of Black and Asian performers in UK Shakespeare:
Regardless of cast size the ratio of white to actors of other races continued to hover around 90% white throughout the remainder of the twentieth century...
…[T]he RSC had few black actors in its early years with the largest number in a season to be found during the year of The Romans (seven). As far as it is possible to detail, in the 1980s and 1990s the RSC had casts of between 21 and 26 actors with only one or two roles played by performers of black or Asian descent. For example, the 1981 Titus Andronicus had 22 actors with Hugh Quarshie as (the already black) Aaron and (in the production’s only example of colorblind casting) Joseph Marcell as a Messenger. In other words, these two actors—Quarshie and Marcell—made up 9% of the total cast. Similar figures can be found in the 1980s productions with the highest number of ethnically diverse actors appearing in Barry Kyle’s 1984 Love’s Labour’s Lost, Adrian Noble’s 1986 Macbeth and Nicholas Hytner’s Measure for Measure the following year. Each of these had a total of 3 black or Asian actors in casts of 26, 27 and 21 respectively, giving the first two an 11% proportion of ethnic minority actors. Measure for Measure (incidentally the only production of the three to cast a black actor, Josette Simon, in a leading role) attained the giddy heights of 14% of its population being of black or Asian descent (in part because the total number of actors had dropped to 21). The decline in the total number of actors in Hytner’s Measure for Measure was a sign of increased budgetary pressures as the RSC reduced its overhead with a long-term decrease in cast sizes. However, regardless of cast size the ratio of white to actors of other races continued to hover around 90% white throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.
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…Unlike the RSC, however, regional productions now also seem frequently devoid of a single black or Asian face within their casts.
...Out of the 74 productions included in the survey of Shakespeares performed in the 2000s outside the confines of the RSC, 17 of them made no concession to the practice of colorblind casting. These 17 productions had all-white casts including at the acclaimed Tobacco Factory, Bristol and Royal Exchange, Manchester as well as almost all of Edward Hall’s productions under the Propeller umbrella. Some high-profile London productions have also failed to hire a single ethnic minority actor, even in minor roles, including Rupert Goold’s Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart (Chichester, later transferring to the Gielgud), Josie Rourke’s West End Much Ado starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate, and—most recently—Jamie Lloyd’s Macbeth with James McAvoy. That the Goold and Rourke productions were recorded—Macbeth for the BBC and Much Ado for download by Digital Theatre—also means that media representation of the plays remains largely the domain of white actors, perpetuating the dominant cultural stereotype of Shakespeare largely an elitist, white beacon of Englishness.
For the full study, follow the link:
Most recently, Dr. Jami Rogers was a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton in the Drama Department. She trained at LAMDA and holds an MA and a PhD from the Shakespeare Institute, the University of Birmingham. Prior to obtaining her PhD, she spent 10 years working in public broadcasting in the US including 8 years at PBS's flagship programmes, Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!. She regularly publishes on the contemporary performance of Shakespeare's plays, including recent articles in Shakespeare Bulletin and Shakespeare: the Journal of the British Shakespeare Association. She has taught in Birmingham, London, Preston and Bolton and performed in professional productions in Washington, D.C. and Boston. She has lectured on Shakespeare and American drama at the National Theatre in London and works regularly with David Thacker at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton.