Black into white makes theatre history

Now that Nancy has scored a hit in `Oliver', are there any roles that carry a colour bar?
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The Independent Online
Lionel Bart took numerous liberties with Charles Dickens when he put Oliver on stage in 1960. Now Sir Cameron Mackintosh, producer of the latest revival, has taken a liberty with both Bart and Dickens - and written a footnote in theatrical history.

Mackintosh's newest cast change has given the role of Nancy to Sonia Swaby, who is black. It is certainly the first time a black actress has played the role in the West End or on film. And suddenly the possibilities for multi-racial casting look limitless.

Increasingly in recent years black actors and actresses have been cast in Shakespeare, particularly at the Royal Shakespeare Company whose current production of Julius Caesar has Hugh Quarshire as a black Mark Antony. But in mainstream theatre examples have been extremely rare.

Now Mackintosh, who personally presided over the Nancy casting, has changed that.

Quite where theatre and film directors go from here is intriguing. If a black actress can play Nancy, one of the best-known characters in English literature, and a character who was undoubtedly white, then why should a black actress not play Jane Austen's Emma or Thackeray's Becky Sharp or Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre or Emily Bronte's Cathy? Where would a white Heathcliff and a black Cathy leave Emily Bronte's hints of passion aroused by Heathcliff's dark complexion?

For with the new possibilities come old concerns. Black actors and actresses are increasingly appearing on the British stage, but more often than not in new work or minor roles in the great literary works. It is too confusing for audiences, directors have claimed, to have black actors playing parts we know were historically or by centuries of literary convention, white. We know that Henry V was not black, just as we know that Blanche Dubois was not black - and how the texture of A Streetcar Named Desire would change if she were played by a black actress. But neither was Bill Sikes's girlfriend black. So is every role up for grabs by performers of all colours?

The question has perplexed even the most progressive and thoughtful directors. John Caird, a former RSC associate director, once told me that though he was a proponent of multi-racial casting and had a brilliant black actress in the company, he would not cast a white Romeo and a black Juliet "because then you've got West Side Story". With Mackintosh's bold move, privately described by Equity officials as "courageous", that sort of worry may be a thing of the past. Audiences at Swaby's first few performances have delighted in her portrayal. British audiences are perhaps becoming colour blind.

Equity's spokesman Martin Brown described the casting of Swaby as "marvellous and very forward looking". He added: "We have a very clear policy on integrated casting. Performers should be cast on their talent alone, not on ethnic origin, so we absolutely applaud the casting of a black Nancy.

"I can't think of something like this happening in the West End before."

The new thinking in multi-racial casting begs other questions. While Mackintosh may have proved a liberalising factor in black playing white, it still seems unlikely that we will see a white actor following in the footsteps of Olivier, Schofield and Gambon and playing Othello at a national company. The artistic directors of both the RSC and the National Theatre remain unwilling to risk offending sensibilities by casting a white actor in the role.