Colour-blind casting finds new stars for Billy Elliot

The mining communities of the North-east of England where the fictional Billy Elliot grew up were largely bastions of the white working-class. But the new cast of the hit musical will be more ethnically diverse, thanks to a training scheme and "colour-blind" casting that has now produced a black-British Billy, a Chinese-British Billy, one Irish and one American.

Stephen Daldry, who directed the film and the stage versions, yesterday presented the next set of young stars specially trained for the central role.

"I'm incredibly proud," he said. "The tenacity and determination and courage of these children is almost magnified in children that come from different ethnic backgrounds. It would be morally reprehensible not to choose them. The casting department has never been given any guidelines on the racial background. They respond only to their enthusiasm and talent."

All the boys were trained at the Billy Elliot school in Leeds, which makes efforts to find children from all backgrounds, not least because the Billy role is so demanding there are comparatively few who can do it.

Daldry said it was a "misconception" that dance training was not available to people from every background, because both the Leeds school and the Royal Ballet's own White Lodge school worked hard to spread their net wide. But it was tough. "Most of the boys have already been dancing for years and have already been through a huge amount of prejudice and bullying because they're the only boy usually in the dance class. But when you come to a situation with Matthew Koon, whose parents are from Hong Kong but is very much a Manchester boy, you can imagine another level of prejudice.

"There's a level of suspension of disbelief when you go to the theatre. When you're watching a show and miners are tap-dancing or in tutus you're in the realm of make-believe."

But he paid credit to the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre for making colour-blind casting the theatrical norm, though only within the past 20 years.

Richard Eyre, the former head of the National Theatre, said there were two productions where the issue was debated.

The first was Guys and Dolls in 1982, when he wanted to cast the black actor Clarke Peters as the lead Sky Masterson. "Everybody thought Clarke was so great why on earth should we not be able to cast him?"

The second was when he wanted the black actor Clive Rowe as Mr Snow in Carousel in 1993. He won that debate too.

Eyre believes audiences now accept such casting. "In theatre, everything depends on the imagination of the audience. It's metaphor," he said. In recent years, there have been striking performances by black actors in roles which social verisimilitude would deem white.

Black breakthroughs

1930 Paul Robeson plays Othello in the West End, when it was the norm for white actors to "black up" for the part. He reprised the role in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1959.

1982 Clarke Peters plays Sky Masterson, the role made famous by Marlon Brando, in the National's Guys and Dolls.

1990 Josette Simon plays the female lead in Arthur Miller's After the Fall at the National Theatre, London, a role widely believed to be based on Miller's former wife, Marilyn Monroe.

1993 Clive Rowe plays Mr Snow in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel at the National Theatre.

1998 Carlos Acosta becomes the first black principal dancer with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, taking roles including Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake.

2000 Ray Fearon becomes the first black actor to play Othello on the RSC's main stage in Stratford since Robeson.

2000 David Oyelowo becomes first black actor to play an English monarch, Henry VI, for the RSC.

2001 Adrian Lester plays Hamlet directed by Peter Brook at the Young Vic, London, and in Paris. He also plays a male Rosalind in As You Like It and, in 2003, Henry V at the National.

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