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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.