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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.