Is the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company’s Casting in Theatre Colour-Blind Or Racist

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When it comes to casting, it’s difficult not to be biased especially if you’re looking for something specific. Colour-blind casting (also known as non-traditional casting) is where the race, ethnicity, body size and gender of actors when casting is not relevant. The Royal Shakespeare Company- formerly (1875–1961) Shakespeare Memorial Company and the National Theatre (1976) are two of the biggest classical companies in the world. The RSC was originated in order to centre on works by William Shakespeare and other Jacobean and Elizabethan playwrights. The National Theatre presents a variety of productions, including Shakespeare, other international classic drama, and new plays by contemporary playwrights. Colour-blind casting was popularized in theatre around 1986 to tackle issues of racism and discrimination. With the RSC and NT both founded before the times of colour-blind casting both companies have come a long way from all-white casts and stereotypical black roles to colour- blind casting and first ever appearances of typical white roles played by black actors. When it comes to Shakespeare his plays have very few black characters, so it is hard for a black actor to get a main part in one of the classics. We live in a time where it is debated if all-white casts are considered racist, and an all-black cast acceptable. Should white actors get to take over the few black character roles under blind-casting or stick to the script and be played how it was imagined?

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Hugh Quarshie played the title role in Iqbal Khan’s 2015 production of ‘Othello’ performed at the Stratford-upon-Avon by the RSC. The character of Othello is an African trusted soldier with an excellent reputation however due to his race he struggles against prejudice and discrimination in everyday life. Other characters in the play see Othello as evil, manipulative, dangerous and a polluted individual who should be feared by society. In the Royal Shakespeare Company debate, Quarshie states “I resisted the role of Othello for years because it seemed to me that it was problematic in that the assumptions contained in the short story on which the play is based, the conventions and the traditions both literally and theatrical just reinforce the notion that Shakespeare and Cinthio, the short story writer, were suggesting that black people behave as they do because of their ethnicity. It seemed to me that the convention of the Moor in Elizabethan England on the stage whenever a Moor appeared, that usually signalled something menacing, or a threat to the social, moral and sexual order of society. So when a genuinely black actor comes to play the role, it did seem to me that it was important to be aware of the possible implications of the role and resist any attempt to endorse what I thought might be racist assumptions.” Quarshie is implying that the role of Othello is based on stereotypes of the perceived black person in the time that ‘Othello’ was written. So for a black actor to play the role it is important to be aware that you may be cast this role simply because you’re black. Lucian Msamati is the first black actor ever to play Iago at the RCS. Khan’s idea behind casting Iago as a black actor was to make the protagonist and his nemesis the same race in order to strip away the underlying racism which drives Iago’s hatred and jealousy on Othello. On the other hand if the idea of casting a white actor as a black character to shake things up or as a challenge, that’s understandable. However considering the time period and purpose of the character of Othello, blind casting is not so ideal. Of course there’s the case of “blacking up” but save the shock, effort, racism and just simply cast the black actor as the black character. There’s always the excuse that there wasn’t much if not any black actors which suited the role, which we all know isn’t true. The ratio from white actor to black actor differs depending on location, society and culture however there are so many talented black actors who have less opportunities when it comes to the classical Shakespearian plays so why take that chance away from them? The black actors playing the roles of Othello and Iago made history and many headliners in many articles claiming the production was ‘gripping’ and excellent’ with how they shaped the production.

Gregory Doran’s 2012 production of ‘Julius Caesar’ by the RSC was an all-black cast in which Jeffery Kissoon played the title role and Paterson Joseph played Brutus. The Shakespeare play connected to Former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela during one of the darkest times of his life when he was imprisoned for his uprising against Apartheid. Doran questioned why ‘Julius Caesar’ was often portrayed in Africa and why Julius Nyerere- the first president of Tanzania, translated the play into Kiswahili. He was very amused to find that with many countries in Africa fighting for independence and against dictatorship that ‘Julius Caesar’ was in his eyes a black play. This was part of Doran’s inspiration for his relocation to contemporary Africa and his need for an all-black cast. Doran wanted to make the second half of the play climatic rather than anticlimactic. In doing so, he believed that with the African concept, after taking down the dictatorship (Caesar), the idea of what comes afterwards for the countries facing these problems today is climactic enough for hope of their future. With ‘Julius Caesar’ himself being a Roman politician around 44 BC, it is evident he was not of colour, so a black actor playing his character would not make sense from the audience’s perspective. With the overall concept of Caesar changed to contemporary Africa, the idea of an all-black cast works to black actor’s benefit as they have an opportunity to play all typical white roles such as Julius Caesar. This works both ways, some people may see this production as colour-blind however it is far from it. As it is relocated in contemporary Africa, the people of Africa have coloured skin, so for a white person to be cast a role in this production, it would break the illusion of the African concept. This is not the only Shakespeare play being relocated to contemporary Africa. Paapa Essiedu shined in the title role of Simon Godwin’s 2016 production of Hamlet which was an all-black cast excluding three minor characters. This was the Royal Shakespeare company’s first time in history to feature a black actor in the lead of Hamlet. The production had a vague context of a West African State along with other influences. When Essiedu was asked about the relocation of ‘Hamlet’ and what he thought of it, he replied -“It’s not a gimmick. Gimmicks never work. However, with Shakespeare I think you have to be relevant rather than reverential. The African influence which has been distilled into this production I think helps to universalise the play. It might be set in Denmark, but in truth the issues it addresses means that it can belong anywhere.” Just as Gregory Doran done with ‘Julius Caesar’ the purpose of the relocation in Godwin’s links closely the same by portraying issues in Hamlet what are in many different countries. There is no doubt that by using a black cast they are removing the typical UK setting and placing it into a country so opposite of our own in order to make the storyline of ‘Hamlet’ universal. Overall, reviews claim that Essiedu was as good the greats in the role of Hamlet such as Benedict Cumberbatch and the memorable performance by David Tennant. Im many articles and interviews there is not much word on the colour of his skin and it seemed to raise no eyebrows besides the fact he was the first black Hamlet in the Royal Shakespeare Company. Essiedu is proud of the reviews he received and has become somewhat an inspiration to young black actors however he admits himself that it will take more than one black actor playing Hamlet to balance out the white, British, middle-class stage. The production was overall successful regardless of the race of the nearly all black cast, Essiedu was named the ‘Graffiti Prince’ and turned the tragedy into a bright heartwarming entertainment.

Before ‘Hamlet’, Paapa Essiedu was already a headliner after substituting in for Sam Troughton’s sudden loss of voice in the National Theatres ‘King Lear’ directed by Sam Mendes back in 2014. When Paapa Essiedu appeared on stage as Edmund after Troughton’s sudden loss of voice, it was obvious that their appearances were nothing alike. Director Mendes spoke to the audience during the interval to explain to the audience the situation and that an understudy (Essiedu) would be taking his place. Blind casting in this production was very obvious as black actress Mimi Ndiweni played one of King Lear’s daughters when King Lear himself and his other daughters are white. Mendes’ choice of casting is questioned when the actress of Zimbabwean decent is playing the role of the outcast, the difference in relationship between King Lear and his other daughters. When a black actress plays with role and is condemned by an old white man (King Lear) it is difficult not to lean towards perhaps the casting was intended.

Debra Ann Byrd- black actress, founder, producer and director of the inaugural Harlem Shakespeare Festival changed her views on colour-blind casting after she was a black woman playing a traditional white role (Desdemona in Othello) and the rest of the cast were white. She claims when the audience came to see the show, some folks were shocked. She also shares how her teacher once told her that she would struggle in her acting career specifically in the classical plays due to her being coloured. She was advised to “Stick to things of {her} own race and ethnicity and not try to cross the line.” After her experience, she realised there was no such thing as colour-blind casting because everyone sees colour on stage. In the audience what is there to be blind to? If the full cast is white and there is one black person that black person will immediately stand out. Regardless of their acting capacity, there is no denying that one person looks different to the others. In consideration of the prejudice she faced, she founded the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, a theatre company that gives the people of colour a chance to perform in the classical plays. It was to her understanding that coloured actors struggle to get main parts. They will go to theatre companies which claim to be colour-blind and non-traditional yet only get casted minor, stereotypical roles.

In the play ‘Death and The King’s Horsemen’ by Wole Soyinka, black actors such as Lucian Msamati “white up” to play a stereotypical British role in the National Theatre. Director Rufus Norris urged an all-black cast and for the roles of the white rulers as parodies who spoke in a ‘Noel Coward’ styled voice which was set in colonial Nigeria 1943. Just like ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Hamlet’ from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Norris wanted a reflection of genuine Nigerian tradition hence the all-black cast. However this caused up rise as if it was to be done the opposite it would be a racist scandal. White actor from the National Theatre states “Colour-blind casting seems to work only one way, not only can we not play black characters, now we’re not even allowed to play whites.’ If the Norris wanted an all-black cast but also to illustrate the white rulers shouldn’t he have just casted white people or change the concept to their leadership to save the reverse racism and uproar with the white actors of the National Theatre. Not everyone had something negative to say about this production, Ronald Harwood, an Oscar-winning screenwriter and playwright somewhat agrees with Norris’ decision to “white-up” the black actors. He says “The whole idea of ethnic casting is ridiculous and patronising, take it to its logical conclusion and only a Jew could play Shylock and only a Scotsman Macbeth.’ Here Harwood is suggesting that if we stick to casting people to their ethnicity (race, sex etc.) the idea of blind casting won’t exist and only the people who fit the description could play these roles. The debate arises when there is the case of “blacking/whiting-up” as it is unacceptable on both ends. In previous plays mentioned, black actors have played white roles and white actors have played black roles without the need to mock or change the colour of their skin. Therefore I believe that Norris was wrong to “white-up” the actors in the National Theatre as their leadership could have been portrayed a harmless way.

Iqbal Khan produced yet another successful production in the RSC involving a black actress as the title role of Cleopatra in 2017. Josette Simon gave an “extraordinary physical performance” in Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. Although Simon is considered a black actress, it is to debate wither or not her role in Cleopatra was blind-casted. She herself is a black British actress and from Antigua decent however this is far from Egyptian which was of course Cleopatra’s nationality. Cleopatra is a victim herself from racial profiling, people nowadays are more interested in her racial background rather than her great ability and successes. In all productions of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ every actress who played Cleopatra was white even though many portrayals and evidence of Greek and Egyptian ancestry has suggested that Cleopatra had dark olive skin. With Cleopatra being a real historic figure just like previously mentioned Julius Caesar in the 2012 RCS production of ‘Julius Caesar’-these roles are not portrayed by actors of their ethnicity. Caesar’s race was changed deliberately in order to match the location the production was set and partly the same set was used for Cleopatra. 



Sources and Bibliography

1.Kate Kellaway 2nd April 2017 the guardian

2.The Guardian Dalya Alberge Sat 28th October 2017

3.Independent Paul Taylor Monday 15th June 2015

4.Royal Shakespeare Company debate held Sunday 9th August 2015 at the Swan Theatre Stratford-Upon-Avon


6.April 6 2018 By Shakespeare & Beyond


8.By Sarah Freeman Monday 15 January 2018





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