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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate