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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 12, 2016
The countdown's beginning.
On November 17 this year, amateur and professional performers will join forces to commemorate the extraordinary fact that in 1828, when slavery still held sway in Britain's colonies, the African American actor Ira Aldridge became Manager of the Coventry Theatre.
He was not yet 21.
Ira Aldridge has moved in and out of obscurity since the day he arrived in England and became the first black actor to play Othello.
In 1930 Paul Robeson honoured Aldridge's memory when he played the part in London, worked with Ira's daughter, and even planned to play his great predecessor on film.
It never happened, and though many books have told the story of Aldridge's life since then - most notably the wonderful three-volume biography by Bernth Lindfors - and even though several plays have presented moments from his unique career - did you see Adeian Lester's perdormance in London or New York? - every time the breakthrough has been met by the same response: 'Ira who?'
In November, as part of the Being Human festival, Coventry's stages and Coventry's streets will honour one of the most astonishing episodes in that astonishing life - when the one-time mayor of Coventry handed the theatre he had created to a 20 year-old American actor.
Who was young and gifted and black.
Come back to this blog during the summer and early autumn as we - BBAS, the Belgrade and Warwick Arts Centre - begin to work on a drama-documentary account. We'll ask: How did it happen? Why did it happen? And what did Aldridge do?
In the shadow of Brexit we need to know that in an open letter to the people of Coventry Ira Aldridge stated his credo, his belief - that 'being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy.'
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.
March 31, 2015
I’m on tour with Shakespeare’s Globe at the moment, taking Hamlet to every nation on this earth over two years and we are currently 80 countries in. We are a multi heritage company, and I’m really proud to be a part of this.
Amanda Wilkin, a member of the Globe's world Hamlet tour, writes to us:
In Finland I remember meeting a dual heritage actress after the show, and she commented that it’s the first time she’s seen such a diverse company onstage and that it meant so much to her.
People comment positively on this aspect of our show all the time. And, I think that it’s great that wherever we go in the world, people may see someone onstage who looks a little bit like them. Hopefully this says that Shakespeare is for everyone, not only one kind of person.
Sometimes, however it’s been interesting to learn that someone has been confused by the casting. I was asked in Tunisia by a young woman what we were trying to say in the production by casting a Black actor as Hamlet.
My response was that simply, any person of any colour can feel the emotions and wrestle with his destiny like Hamlet in the play.
I’m having an incredible time, and feel very lucky to be on this journey.
February 17, 2015
Revenge cannot make you free.
The Shakespeare's Globe world tour of Hamlet will reach India and Pakistan in Autumn 2015; in the meantime a Hindi film updating the play has been released and has been showered with Bollywood awards, critical praise, and political and religious protests.
Following Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello), Haider is Vishal Bhardwaj’s third transposition of Shakespearean tragedy to the Indian subcontinent, and by far the most ambitious. Set in divided Kashmir during the violent separatist conflicts of the 1990s, Haider was co-scripted by Bhardwaj and the journalist Basharat Peer. It draws on Peer’s own experiences – from humiliations at army checkpoints (he has a cameo as a traumatised civilian) to a fundamental plot twist: the Muslim family of the teenage Haider/Hamlet send him away to university to prevent his radicalisation.
As a result Haider is two films in one. In the first half, the loose parallels with Shakespeare’s play seem incidental distractions while Bhardwaj presents tales of the Kashmir insurgency. Indian army artillery turns Haider’s home into a ruined shell. Byestanders are killed in the hunt for terrorists. Suspects - including Haider’s father, a doctor - are paraded before hidden accusers and selected for arrest, interrogation, or a mass grave. Indian cinema has rarely touched on this recent history.
Gradually, however, the Hamlet connections become more insistent. One of Bhardwaj’s greatest strengths is his readiness to rebalance Shakespeare, giving new speeches to the silent and bolstering relationships, and in this case he makes the hero’s grieving and isolated mother (renamed Ghazaala) the film’s emotional centre. When her husband is taken away, she becomes one of Kashmir’s thousands of ‘half-widows’, whom we see holding up photographs of vanished spouses and sons. So we understand - though Haider refuses to - when she drifts towards her affectionate brother-in-law Khurrum. He’s a populist politician, campaigning for the return of the Disappeared. How can he possibly be a murderer?
There are many bold touches like this. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become the indistinguishable Salman and Salman - video-store owners and part-time spies. Ophelia (Arshee) is re-invented as a resourceful journalist; and yet her father, brother and lover all push her back towards Ophelia’s fate. Haider’s characters are the victims of their own contradictions and those of society. Arshee’s father, a corrupt policeman, is so touched when she knits him a red scarf that he wears it proudly with his uniform; he also uses it to tie up Haider’s wrists. In an understated scene of mental breakdown, Arshia unravels it.
Frustratingly, in all this, Haider, or rather the actor, Shahid Kapoor, seemed the film’s weak link to me - photogenic but inexpressive and with very little to say. But this actually prepares the ground for Bhardwaj's greatest coup. When Haider learns the truth of his father’s death (several kinds of ‘ghost’ deliver the call for revenge), both character and actor are transformed. Head shaved, face painted, gaping, grinning, Haider turns into a manic holy fool. He pretends to hang himself in the town square, he whips up a crowd of chanting protesters, and he leads a troupe of warrior-dancers in an electrifying routine shattering his new father’s wedding. Rather than feigning insanity or succumbing to it, this Hamlet channels decades of popular anger into frenetic movement and pounding song.
Thus he launches the film’s final movement - fifteen minutes of accelerating action in which all the plots converge and the relationship between Shakespearean fiction and internet brutality becomes surreal. Heavy snow blurs the vistas of the mountains and lakes; blood tints the snow; gravediggers sing, dance, and go to bed in their graves. Haider’s ending poses uncomfortable contemporary questions about suicide and revenge – and the ability of Shakespeare’s texts to help us answer them.
(From the forthcoming Spring edition of Around the Globe)
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.
August 15, 2014
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.
March 24, 2014
Thanks Tony. Worth also linking to this piece on 'casting for equity'?:
Based on our experience at the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference in January, it would seem that a lot of most interesting casting is happening on west coast...
Paul Prescott, Shakespeare on the Road. http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/