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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 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.


August 15, 2014

Bollywood Shakespeare

Guest Contributor Varsha Panjwani writes:

Shakespeare and Bollywood Conference


Organised by Koel Chatterjee (Royal Holloway), Preti Taneja (Cambrige), and Thea Buckley (Shakespeare Institute) at Senate House, London: 27 June 2014



Shakespeare arrived in India under colonial rule when T.B. Macaulay enforced English education, including the study of Shakespeare, as a means to undermine the development of Indian languages and literature. Ironically, however, when colonial rule ended and the British started leaving, Shakespeare remained and mastered local languages such as Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, Hindi, and Malayalam. Today, Shakespeare speaks in all these tongues on Indian screens as his plays are adapted, appropriated, and reinvented by Indian cinema.


The widespread popularity of Shakespeare in Indian cinema became apparent when keynote speaker Poonam Trivedi (Delhi University) kicked off the inaugural ‘Shakespeare and Bollywood’ conference by comparing V.K. Prakash’s Karmayogi, a 2012 take on Hamlet in Malayalam, with Sohrab Modi’s 1935 Hindi/Urdu adaptation Khoon Ka Khoon and Kishore Sahu’s 1954 Hamlet. Thea Buckley (Shakespeare Institute) further explored the influence of Shakespeare by mapping how the Mollywood blockbuster, Karmayogi blends Bollywood and Kerala’s cultural traditions with Shakespeare’s text. While these papers opened a significant line of enquiry regarding the differences and similarities between regional Shakespeare adaptations in India, they also problematised terms such as ‘Indian Cinema’ and ‘Bollywood’. The label ‘Indian Cinema’ was found limiting as it seems to present a homogeneous picture of an industry characterised by its heterogeneous variety. Equally, it was felt that the term ‘Bollywood’ was being used to describe almost any film with Indian themes and songs regardless of its language and the place where it was produced.


The urgency to investigate these terms was brought to the forefront when Sita Thomas (University of Warwick) critiqued the Royal Shakespeare Company’s branding of Iqbal Khan’s Much Ado About Nothing as a Bollywood production. Thomas contrasted this problematic labelling with the much more innovative way in which Samir Bhamra’s Phizzical Theatre Company embraced all aspects of Bollywood to create a Cymbeline which offered rich commentary on both Bollywood and Shakespeare. Bhamra was present at the conference and admitted that questions such as ‘How do you define a Bollywood production?’ and ‘What are its core ingredients?’ constantly occupied him when he was ‘Bollywoodising’ Shakespeare. Suman Bhuchar, who marketed Iqbal Khan’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, was also a contributor to the conference and provided more insight. Together, these papers made it clear that both Shakespeare and Bollywood are powerful global brands. While the Bollywood industry has recently begun to use Shakespeare to promote worldwide critical engagement, the Shakespeare industry has returned the compliment by using Bollywood to offer a differently flavoured Shakespeare to attract a more diverse clientele.


Yet, Shakespeare and Bollywood are not merely brands exploiting each other to sell their products; they share a more productive relationship. For instance, my own paper detailed the amalgam of Hindu religious folk theatre and Shakespeare in Bollywood’s 2013 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and questioned whether the film deployed Shakespeare to promote the subaltern theatre forms that were in danger of perishing under the influence of Western theatre. Priyanjali Sen (New York University) elaborated on these relationships when she raised the pertinent point that the Bengali Bhadralok culture – something that is considered so regionally specific – glorified Shakespeare right from its inception, thereby drawing attention to the way in which Shakespeare is deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of Indian cinema.


The long and chequered history of Shakespeare in Indian cinema is a powerful tool in the hands of directors who explore what it means to be Indian in a global culture through a Shakespearean lens. Emphasising one end of this spectrum was Shauna O’Brien (Trinity College, Dublin) who argued that the 1965 Bollywood film, Shakespeare Wallah commemorates how India defined its emerging identity in opposition to Shakespeare. Detailing the other end of this spectrum, Preti Taneja (University of Cambridge) interrogated negotiations between India’s national and diaspora identities in the 2009 film, Life Goes On, a retelling of King Lear. Taneja contended that the questions of identity are not as clear-cut as in Shakespeare Wallah and Datta’s film has to chart an uneasy territory in trying to appease various Indian sensibilities. That Datta uses Shakespeare’s play to debate Indian identity politics is testament to the fact that while Shakespeare arrived as a foreigner in India, he has now become a naturalised citizen, and that Bollywood has had a huge role to play in this settlement.


The process of naturalisation through cinema probably began with Angoor (1982) which Koel Chatterjee (Royal Holloway) pointed out was the first Bollywood film in which Shakespeare met an existing Indian film genre so that the product was more of a blend than a mere imitation or plagiarism. Claire Cochrane’s (University of Worcester) reflective thoughts on her first encounter with the more recent 2001 Bollywood blockbuster, Dil Chahta Hai, traced how this process has been refined over the years. Her paper pointed out that Shakespeare has become so ingrained in Bollywood that it is now difficult to tell whether an element is more Bollywood or more Shakespeare. This is only to be expected as Andrew Dickson (Guardian theatre critic) stressed how his search for the origins of Shakespeare on screen in India led him to conclude that Shakespeare was a definite presence even at the very start of cinema in India. His investigation revealed that while there was a wealth of past performances involving legendary songwriters, directors and actors from Gulzar, Vishal Bhardwaj, and Mala Sinha to independent directors such as Sharat Kataria, there were many more diverse projects still in the pipeline, such as Tigmanshu Dhulia’s and Bhardwaj’s two Hamlets. In the words of Trivedi, it is fair to say that Shakespeare has indeed become ‘hamara’ (our) Shakespeare in Indian cinema. What the inaugural conference made amply clear, however, was that this interrelationship has not received the attention it deserves. The way in which Bollywood particularly and Indian cinema generally is reconfiguring Shakespeare and Indian identity is something that both India and a multicultural society like Britain need to engage with further.


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