The Metropolist Recommends - - by Gareth Wood

Black or White: Does race matter in theatre?

Black or White: Does race matter in theatre?

Could a black man play Macbeth, or Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus or Hamlet? Could a black woman play Guinivere or a Medieval Abbess? Of course they could and, in some cases they have. No one would ever dream of saying otherwise because does it really matter that people of colour are playing characters that in real life would have been white? No, it doesn’t, because we’ve moved beyond such things in these progressive times.

Now ask another set of questions. Could a white man play Othello, or Moses without inviting criticism of those decisions? Could a white, British male play Khan Noonien Singh without there being protests boiling down to the colour of his skin? Actor and playwright, Steven Berkoff commented recently about political correctness having run rampant in the theatre – does the man has a point? Are we still so conscious about race that commentators on theatre, film and television feel the need to apply different standards? Berkoff’s comments were referring to a review of a new production of Othello at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in which both the title character (black) and the scheming Iago (white), are played by black men, Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati respectively. Theatre reviewer, Paul Taylor, commented that ‘The days when it was thought acceptable for a white actor to black up as Othello are well behind us’. Berkoff commented on Facebook that the political correctness this displayed had made the role a ‘no-go’ area for white actors.

Speaking of Laurence Olivier’s performance of a ‘blacked-up’ Othello role back in the 1960s (alongside Frank Finlay as Iago), the actor commented that Othello’s humanity ensured that whoever played role, whether white or black, had to go beyond simply blacking up in order to give a convincing performance. Berkoff’s anger is all too easy to infer since the audience at the time would not have judged Olivier’s performance simply on the basis of how successfully he had blacked up.

Such a comment is true of any role, yet there remains the issue of double standards that Berkoff hinted at. In this recent production of Othello by Iqbal Khan, Msamati’s performance would have had to transcend his colour by virtue of one line alone. When Iago confides to the audience ‘oh, how I hate the Moor’ it is dialogue that speaks volumes of the loathing he feels for Othello. That a black actor spoke it means the audience would have been asked to suspend their disbelief. That his performance has been praised would seem to indicate that colour was not too great a barrier.

So why couldn’t it be the same with a white Othello? There have been white Othellos who didn’t black up to play the part. Most famously Patrick Stewart, but also Thomas Thieme, yet convention would appear to hold a heavy sway and, in any event, it’s one far from applicable only to the works of Shakespeare. When the film, Exodus: Gods and Kings was released starring Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton, it was attacked for whitewashing history, with a similar accusation being hurled at Star Trek: Into Darkness when Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as Khan. Such accusations ignore reality; namely that Hollywood isn’t racist, but merely commercial (as the Khan graphic novel, exploiting the Cumberbatch controversy, to sell a comic shows), signing names it knows it can take to the bank in the form of bigger cinema audiences.

The theatre, though, can surely afford to be a bit less about naked self-interest in how it makes its casting decisions? Berkoff clearly thinks so, otherwise he wouldn’t have made his comments, and he’s right. Audiences in a theatre hall have a much more direct and vivid connection to the characters and the performances the actors are creating. To them it shouldn’t matter one bit as to the colour of someone’s skin. No one would ever think that a black Macbeth or Hamlet could fail to convince an audience. They’ll be able to do the same thing for a white Othello, without the need for the actor needing to black up and somehow denigrating the role, as indeed the examples above show. No role therefore should be a no-go area or reserved for actors based solely on the colour of their skin nor should convention be allowed to uphold such a status quo.

[IMAGE: Hugh Quarshie Twitter]

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