Tom Sutcliffe: Only when colour on stage isn't an issue will we have made progress


Related Topics

I found myself wondering the other night whether a white actor will ever play Othello again. In the near future the answer to this question is obvious, I would have thought. Only last week the American playwright Bruce Norris withdrew permission for a German company to perform his play Clybourne Park, after learning that a white actress was going to play a black character.

The management's attempt to argue that the colour of the performer's skin was irrelevant and could be tweaked with make-up didn't impress him. And the Royal Shakespeare Company found itself under attack after it emerged that a production of the Chinese classic, The Orphan of Zhao, would include European actors playing Asian characters.

Artistic director Greg Doran's explanation that the same company were delivering three plays in total and that Asian actors would be playing non-Asians in other productions didn't appear to placate his critics, who included an East Asian actor who hadn't made it through the auditions. Given that degree of sensitivity about cross-racial casting, it doesn't seem likely that anyone would dare give the Moor to anyone but a black actor – though not impossible that an actor from the Maghreb might cut up rough.

My question wasn't really about probabilities, though, but about the propriety of such a thing ever happening – and it was prompted by watching Lolita Chakrabarti's play Red Velvet, which tells the story of the 19th-century actor Ira Aldridge, who astonished London theatre-goers when he replaced Edmund Kean in the role of Othello, after the great actor had fallen ill.

Chakrabarti's play – in which Adrian Lester gives a terrific performance as Aldridge – is in part an exploration of the weird tangle of assumptions we make about acting, and the ways in which racial identity gets knotted up within them.

The violent objections to Aldridge from the audience and contemporary critics were twofold; one, identity wasn't acting and devalued the transforming magic that Kean could achieve, and two, if Aldridge wasn't really acting, then when he laid hands on his Desdemona it was a real assault. The naturalism of Aldridge's style and his talent, Chakrabarti implied, aggravated that racist response.

It's a melancholy story and it presses home its point with a final coup de theatre, in which we see Aldridge whiting-up to play King Lear, a bleak moment of self-erasure. We might even be tempted at that moment to congratulate ourselves on how far we've come – since we know that Adrian Lester played Henry V several years ago to great critical acclaim, without a dab of panstick on his face.

But the truth is that there's still a considerable distance to go, and one of the things that tells you that is the current unthinkability of a white Othello – however radical the production. For the moment, for perfectly good reasons, colour-blind casting is actually only blind to colour in one direction. We'll know the issue is dead when no one gives a damn either way.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Soft Developer (4.0, C#, Windows Services, Sockets, LINQ, WCF)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer (4.0, C#, Windows ...

C# Developer -Winforms, VB6 - Trading Systems - Woking

£1 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading financial software house with its He...

C #Programmer (.Net 4.0/4.5/ C#) -Hertfordshire-Finance

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: C #Developer (.Net 4.0/4.5/ C#, A...

JQuery Developer JQuery, UI, Tomcat, Java - Woking

£1 per annum: Harrington Starr: JQuery Developer JQuery, UI, Tomcat, Java - Tr...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel

Once I would have agreed with Dawkins. Then my daughter was born with Down's Syndrome

Jamie McCullum
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home