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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.


December 04, 2013

Guest Blog: Jami Rogers Writes – Part One: Tarrell Alvin McCraney's Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC

Race plays an important role in Tarrell Alvin McCraney's production of Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC – an important but a surprisingly subtle and sometimes contradictory one. McCraney is an actor, director and playwright whose career has been nurtured a large extent by British theatre with his major plays produced at the Young Vic and the Royal Court (and one far less successful play for the RSC). McCraney's best plays have been those that have interrogated the African American experience through thought-provoking multiple lenses. The Brothers Size and In the Red and Brown Water premiered at the Young Vic in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an event that sent shock waves through America as the fissure between black and white were made evident once again. Choir Boy – a Royal Court and Lincoln Center co-production – movingly examined what it felt like to be both black and gay in a prestigious New England boarding school.

McCraney's work is infused with what Michael Billington has described as "mythic simplicity" and The Brothers Size and In the Red and Brown Water drew on Yoruba traditions, which infused his work with a mixture of realism and ritual. The impact of The Brothers Size lay in the combination of its formal language, its simple staging without décor, and the pure physicality of the performances that focused on characters and situations without distraction in the production at the Young Vic made it an intense and rewarding experience. At the play's core is an encounter by African Americans with law enforcement – a racially charged event in contemporary experience – which added layers of complexity in what was otherwise a family drama. Choir Boy is a play that investigates the cultural de-humanisation of groups of people, especially along racial and sexual orientation lines with black students in the all black private school now segregating their own. Significantly, the play takes place as the school prepares for its 50th anniversary – more than a nod to the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech that was then only a year in the future when Choir Boy premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012. Choir Boy takes an incisive and painful look at how far America has swerved from the road trod by King in 1963.

My point in drawing out McCraney's writing is to hint at (as it is impossible to fully illustrate in a blog post) this body of work that draws heavily on myths yet simultaneously expresses the fissure in America (and, frankly, Britain) that breaks along racial lines – sometimes in gut-wrenching and visceral ways. The mythic status of the characters of Antony and Cleopatra may be what attracted McCraney to the play, perhaps seeing in these characters with larger than life reputations another way to explore the themes that have peppered his work. In fact, it began with a naked Cleopatra, walking through the pool of water upstage against the back of the Swan's wall and then sitting along its edge, wailing.

Given McCraney's body of work and the production's status as a co-production with two American companies and its purported setting as Haiti before the revolution, Antony and Cleopatra felt very British. The cast was half- British and half-American, but only once did an American accent come out of any of their mouths; the rest of the time the Americans adopted Received Pronunciation or – in the case of the Egyptians – Haitian or African accents. The style was often very reserved as well, with actors maintaining and upright posture and very clear verse-speaking (or as I prefer to call it, communicating the verse to the audience). There was little – or no – American exuberance (known often in these parts as being 'loud') and it was almost static in terms of movement (or 'statuesque' as is said of some defenders in British football who are completely still as the ball whizzes past them and into the back of the net).

Yet for all its seeming Britishness in style, elements of it were also very American. Most notably, perhaps, was what Enobarbus (who frequently acted as narrator in McCraney's script) termed as "An Interlude: Caesar's Triumph". Caesar's triumph was one that in no uncertain terms was directly corresponding to the slave trade. One character was paraded around the stage – bound by a single rope that intertwined her neck, wrists and her owner – and whipped. Pompey then had his throat ceremoniously cut as Caesar looked on, wearing his gold garland on his head. While this non-verbal addition was layered with the painful (largely American) stigma of slavery on a date when I saw it that was very nearly the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, one of my British friends was extremely frustrated by the slavery imagery. 'Why?', she asked (the Americans got it immediately).

I think that answer to that 'Why?' lies both in McCraney's interests and in the audiences who will encounter the production next in Miami and New York. What McCraney's casting did was to primarily separate Romans and Egyptians along racial lines. Cleopatra and her entourage were black or mixed race while the Romans were English, dressed to represent the Napoleonic French as a nod to the Haitian setting (and rather than ignore it because we should be well past noticing or caring, but since we aren't it's worth noting that this was the first black actress to play Cleopatra on an RSC stage). The racial lines were drawn in ways that would probably shock Joseph Papp, who truly believed in colorblind casting, casting on merit with the best actor given the role purely on ability no matter if they were Blue or Gray. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this was the crucial difference in using race as cultural situator between McCraney's British-American production and recent British attempts at equality.

Many theatre companies have found ways to include more ethnic minority actors in their Shakespearean casts, making the process more equitable. This has sometimes taken the form of setting the plays in "foreign" locales (i.e., not recognizably heritage-infused white English country houses of period drama), sometimes with all black or all Asian casts, at other times with the demarcation along lines that show feuds in terms of race (as easily done in more than one Romeo and Juliet). This approach has often led to ethnic minority actors being re-"Other"-ized by forcing them to adopt African or Asian accents rather than allowing British-born actors to speak in their natural accents like their white contemporaries do. True, on one hand McCraney's Antony and Cleopatra was making Cleopatra and her fellow countrymen and women "other" in speech (the African/Haitian accents) and deed (with what I assume to be voodoo rituals introduced towards the end of the production). Yet the insertion of the slavery motif in what was in actual fact a very brief vignette highlighted the fact that Rome was there to conquer Egypt – the white man was colonizing Africa (or Haiti) once again. In this light, there was a kind of quiet dignity to Cleopatra's refusal to capitulate to the conquering Caesar and in her death she set her people free. What McCraney did – and perhaps was only able to achieve because of the interests clearly inherent in his own playwriting – was to infuse the Africans with pride in their culture. This Antony and Cleopatra was not celebrating Mark Antony's triumphs (rightly as he loses frequently in the play); instead McCraney's production celebrated Cleopatra. The vision of the black character in chains in the "Interlude" is juxtaposed with the spiritually free Cleopatra who chooses death rather than submission to the colonial invader. Freedom versus slavery, a very strong pull still in McCraney's America.

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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.


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