David Lister: The Week in Arts

Look back in approval at colour-blind casting
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The Independent Online

This was a significant week for British theatre, and for that much-used phrase "colour-blind casting." On Wednesday a revival of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger opened at the Jermyn Street Theatre with black actor Jimmy Akingbola as Osborne's rebellious and angry young character Jimmy Porter. On the same night, just down the road at the Palace Theatre, a casting change in the Monty Python show Spamalot saw British-Asian actor Sanjeev Bhaskar take over as King Arthur.

Those of us who have lamented for years the lack of black actors on stage should be applauding this week. Of course, the move towards colour-blind casting has been growing in recent times with Nick Hytner's decision in 2003 to cast Adrian Lester as Shakespeare's Henry V at the National Theatre a pivotal moment. But in its small way in its small theatre, a black Jimmy Porter is even more pivotal. Henry V is a figure from long ago in history; we have no clear impression of him in our minds, and anyway he didn't really speak in blank verse. So Shakespeare's poetic version of his life should rightly be able to accommodate colour-blind casting, as should any Shakespeare play with the exception of Othello, where black and white are deliberately contrasted. Indeed, the colour-blind attitude to casting the classics is not something any sensible person would challenge.

But seeing Look Back in Anger as ripe for a black protagonist opens the door for colour-blind casting much further. While King Arthur down the road is a semi-mythical figure, we certainly think of Osborne's anti-hero as a very specific type of 1950s man in a very specific environment. To say that social realism should no longer preclude black actors in this play or the huge number of socially precise post-war plays is a major move forward. And I applaud it wholeheartedly.

So, of course, does the world of theatre with its unqualified commitment to colour-blind casting. And it is tempting to think, as I'm quite sure many in the world of theatre do think, that we do have a casting system that is completely colour-blind, and no role should any longer be the province of one skin colour. It's tempting to think that, but it's wrong. For the one thing that I have yet to hear anyone in the theatre address is how one applies colour-blind casting to plays involving real people, and people whose faces we know very well. And there are a lot of those dramas, on stage, on film and on TV.

Let's take one of the best plays of the past couple of years, Frost/Nixon. This was the dramatisation of the David Frost interview with Richard Nixon in the 1970s. We know those two figures; we know what they looked like; we know that there hasn't been a black president of the US (yet), and I don't think for a minute there was any thought given to casting a black actor in either role. Nor do I imagine that Stephen Frears was colour-blind when he cast actors to play Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for his television film The Deal. Suddenly when it's faces from real life and from a modern age, the question of colour-blind casting becomes trickier. Could we have a black Queen Victoria on stage, a black Queen Elizabeth II, a black Churchill, a black Hitler?

These are the questions I would like the leading theatre directors to answer. And until they do, we can't boast that we have colour-blind casting. A black Jimmy Porter this week marked an important and welcome moment in British theatre. Now for the hard part.

* The BBC showed plenty of coverage of the Glastonbury Festival, spread over BBC2, 3 and 4. The only problem was that none of those three channels started broadcasting from the festival until 7pm on the Friday, and a couple of hours earlier at the weekend, whereas bands were playing from 11 in the morning on all three days. It seems that BBC3 and 4 do not have licences to broadcast during the day, and BBC2 had other scheduling commitments in the daytime. According to the BBC, it tried to "reflect" what had happened earlier in the day in its evening coverage.

It's faintly absurd. This is one of the biggest rock festivals in the world. The BBC has a monopoly of coverage, spreads it over three channels, yet misses out on live coverage of a huge chunk of proceedings. If it can't sort that out for next year, maybe the broadcasting rights should go elsewhere.

It would take some bottle ...

One of the more ludicrous things about going to gigs is the edict that all bottles of water will have their tops removed as you enter the venue. This means that said water then spills all over you during the evening. The reason the tops are removed is the fear by promoters and venue managers, clearly in an extreme state of paranoia, that the audience will en masse throw the bottles on stage – an action that is more difficult (but, let them be warned, not impossible) with the tops off.

This idiotic ruling reached its most ridiculous level the other day when I attended a Neil Diamond concert at the O2 in London. As the stern steward confiscated bottle tops by the score, I pointed out to him that many of the audience were in their 50s, 60s, even in some cases 70s. "Do you really think that they are going to hurl bottles at Neil Diamond?" I asked. "It's possible," he replied.

It would certainly have made a great picture.