Shakespeare and Integrated Casting

By Berry, Ralph | Contemporary Review, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare and Integrated Casting


Berry, Ralph, Contemporary Review


IDON'T want to suggest a Bateman cartoon, but can we discuss colour-casting for a moment? When Declan Donnellan directed his RSC Academy Company King Lear (2002), he cast a Lear, Nonso Anozie, who came over as an African potentate. That was his cultural identity as projected. Anozie filled the role with great brio and conviction. But the first three broadsheet reviews I saw made no mention of ethnicity or culture. The Stratford Herald supplied a helpful photograph but no match-up words in the review. The issue was silenced. Self-censorship is no help to the stage.

When the issue is raised in the media, the problems tend to be passed over. Such debate as exists on 'non-traditional' or 'integrated' casting often bypasses audience difficulties. The casting of David Ojelowo as Henry VI in the RSC production of 2000 was not universally acclaimed. Ojelowo's family came from Nigeria, and his choice as the company's Henry Plantagenet was much discussed in the press. (See, for example, several articles in The Times of September 20/21/22.) Francis Bennion's letter to the Sunday Times (1 October 2000) states the adverse case:

  I suggest David Ojelowo's defence of his casting lacks conviction. A
  white actress playing Cleopatra is made up to resemble Cleopatra, but
  an actor of Nigerian ancestry can't be made up to resemble Henry VI.
  If on stage he pretends to be Henry VI, that convinces nobody, and the
  obvious untruth is a distracting irritation throughout the
  performance. Ojelowo correctly says theatre is make-believe. He must
  see that this is defeated when an actor's appearance constantly
  reminds the audience that the truth is different from what is being
  portrayed on stage.

The issues come down to dramatic conventions, and their hold upon audiences.

These conventions start from a premise unique to drama. The stage is different from other walks of life. Acting is not a job like other jobs, because it depends upon casting, and casting is not commensurate with other rights that we take for granted in society. An actor is his body. Whatever his acting skills, he is inescapably his physical self. In other jobs, people are appointed and promoted on qualifications and experience. No other considerations may affect the appointment of accountants, secretaries, janitors and cameramen (even if some unions operate a discreet colour bar). Not so actors, who have to live with their height, vocal pitch, perceived attractiveness, and so on. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the tall blonde gets to play Helena, the short brunette plays Hermia. They might like it the other way round, but they have to submit to the imperatives of text and casting. Short thin men with light tenor voices can only dream of playing Falstaff.

There are now two casting conventions on the stage, 'colour-blind' and 'colour-conscious'. 'Colour-blind' seeks to operate on the same principle as employment in everyday life. The audience is to ignore the ethnicity of non-white actors: it does not exist. Sometimes this is easy enough. In Love's Labour's Lost, either of the two young men, Longaville and Dumain, can be played by a black actor. This was done in Ian Judge's production for the RSC, and Kenneth Branagh's film. No special point was made. But when Richard Eyre cast a black actor as De Flores in The Changeling at the National, this was meant to be noticed. In a nineteenth-century South American setting, De Flores was a major-domo of slave stock, and his resentments, sexual and social, drove the action forward. Again, Philip Prowse's production of The White Devil, also at the National, cast Josette Simon as Vittoria. The director made the Corombonas a family additionally resented by the aristocratic Medicis. In such productions, the black actor assimilates and highlights playing values that are at least latent in the text. Just as eclectic costuming is now widespread, so eclectic casting is coming in. But one has to take note of the trend, and to make some distinctions. …

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