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January 08, 2014

Guest Blog: Jami Rogers: Casting at the Donmar

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.


October 15, 2013

Guest Blog

IRA ALDRIDGE’S EARRINGS

by

Patricia Cumper

Part way through his address about the exhibition on Black and Asian Shakespearean performances called ‘To Tell My Story’ currently on display at Lambeth Library, Professor Tony Howard told his audience the story of Ira Aldridge’s daughter giving the earrings her father had worn during his acclaimed performances of Othello to Paul Robeson as he was about to play the same part. The story felt significant for two reasons: firstly, that it meant Black actors had been documented successfully playing Shakespearean roles in Britain since the 19th century; secondly, that it was an item of costume that indicated the exoticism of the role of Othello and so to symbolise something of the essential tension in the relationship between Shakespeare and Black and Asian actors today.

The exhibition is interesting. It starts in the 19th century and documents through some eight panels the highlights of Black and Asian Shakespearean performances in mainstream British theatre to the present day. Initially, it tells the tale of American Black performers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then it goes on to document the resistance to, and eventual inclusion of, British Black and Asian performers in a wide range of roles as waves of immigration swept by the tides of world history changed the composition of Britain’s population.

‘Here the sable African is free‘ Ira Aldridge declared in an ex tempo address to an adoring audience. The stage was his home, the play text his weapon of choice. Aldridge, like Robeson after him and many other actors since, understood the politics of performance, that the direct conversation between performer and audience can be tremendously powerful, the universal humanity of Shakespeare’s play an unshakeable platform for messages of equality and creative expression.

The display, and Professor Howard address, pointed out a number of firsts : Edric Connor as Gower in Pericles, the first ‘coloured’ actor to perform at the Royal Shakespeare Company; Cy Grant’s appearance as Othello opposite a young Judy Dench in scenes from Othello broadcast on ITV; the scandal in 1979 when the BBC wanted to bring in James Earl Jones to play Othello; Norman Beaton’s role in Measure for Measure; Talawa Theatre Company’s 1986 production; Tara Arts who described their Shakespeare as ‘the empire striking back’. 

After the main address, actors Nicholas Bailey and Karen Bryson, who have both played Shakespearean roles, talked about when Shakespeare became a part of their lives and how they came to love his plays and were eager to do more. Professor Howard described the point of the BBA Shakespeare Project as ‘to celebrate achievements’. When the discussion was opened out to the audience, it was apparent that there were deep and abiding questions that the exhibition raised that begged discussion and perhaps deeper enquiry, including:

Why did it feel as if there fewer opportunities for Black and Asian actors to play Shakespearean roles today than there were a decade ago? Has theatre become complacent about using Black and Asian actors because it has already happened? What roles are there for Black British actors who were unwilling to play servants? Must actors wait on a director’s or producer’s artistic vision for a play before they can be looked at for roles? If colour blind casting is the right way to go, what right has anyone to object to a white actor playing Othello? Aren’t all minorities including gay and Jewish characters underrepresented or stereotyped in Shakespeare? If theatre is make believe, who can’t any actor play any part? The discussion in response to all these concerns was - needless to say - lively.

Shakespeare’s words are my story, Karen Bryson stated at the end of the evening’s presentation; the journeys of his characters are my journey. With these words, she summed up the dynamic relationship between actor and playwright, performer and audience. Conversations continued to hum in the atrium of Lambeth Library for a good while after the presentation ended. Shakespeare, whether you like or loathe his work, cannot be ignored.

Patricia Cumper

11th October 2013

Patricia Cumper is a playwrightand producerand was Artistic Director and CEO of Talawa Theatre Company from 2006-2012.


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