Blacking up must remain a thing of the past

Steven Berkoff is wrong to lament that white actors can no longer play Othello

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The Independent Online

When the actor Steven Berkoff criticises you, he pulls no punches. The theatre critic of this paper is the latest to feel the wrath of Berkoff’s pen, or in this case his Facebook page, following a review of the RSC’s Othello, in which he remarked that the days are long gone when a white actor can play the title role.

Berkoff denounced this as “bilge”, said there was much more to playing the part than simply “blacking up”; he recalled Laurence Olivier’s towering performance in the part in the 1960s, and lamented that “the fiends of political correctness in all their self-righteousness had struck a no-go-zone for white actors on that particular role.”

There was a time when I took a Berkoffian stance on this. A decade or so ago, I too thought it a pity that one of the greatest roles in theatre was no longer available to white actors, and that they could no longer try to measure up to Olivier, and I wrote articles and was invited on to the BBC’s Today programme to expound that view. But, unlike Berkoff, in the intervening period I have completely changed my mind.

Growing awareness of the lack of opportunities for black actors combined with a visceral distaste for the procedure of “blacking up” has made such a stance feel not just antiquated but insulting to so many fine, black actors. Some directors have countered this by having a white Othello with the rest of the cast black – the current RSC production even has a black Iago (pictured above). But these radical departures are at odds with key sections of the text. 

We must accept and actually applaud the fact that Othello is one role – and there aren't exactly many – that cannot be played by a white actor, that “blacking up” now hugely offends the sensibilities of both blacks and whites, and we should glory in the tremendous performances in the role by black actors that we have enjoyed in recent years. The argument, often trotted out, that black actors play parts written for whites, has little force. They are still a small minority on stage and on screen, and to take away from black actors one of the very few great, classic roles of a black man, is a form of theft.

But, in all this there is one great, gaping anomaly. For years the world-famous opera singer Placido Domingo regularly “blacked up” at Covent Garden to sing Otello in Verdi's opera, and no one turned a hair. Even in more recent times, just three years ago, a white tenor  “darkened his skin” to use the Royal Opera’s own phrase at the time. Only last year Otello was played at the English National Opera by a leading white tenor.

This is a double standard.  It is either right or it is wrong to have white performers in the role. Most of us now agree it is wrong, and it is time for opera directors, opera singers and opera audiences to recognise that. There can’t be a different set of ethical standards for different art forms.


Premium seats are a premium con

Having campaigned for a very long time against high theatre ticket prices and associated booking fees, I’m pleased to see that the latest twist (£200 seats for The Book of Mormon in the West End) has provoked some outrage. Yes, £200 for a couple of hours at the theatre is faintly obscene. Part of the problem is the relatively recent introduction of so-called “premium seats” which cost a small fortune more than the seats immediately behind, in front or next to them. I’m not sure who thought up this insulting little wheeze, but whoever it was is a premium con-artist.


Make me a deal and make it straight, Bryan Ferry

And then there are those booking fees. The ones where you pay an exorbitant extra fee to see a performer? No, actually I’m referring to one where you pay an exorbitant extra fee and don’t see a performer. Reader Mike Filer has informed me that he had paid booking fees on top of his tickets to see Bryan Ferry at the Royal Albert Hall in London, but the concert was cancelled due to Ferry’s illness. Mr Filer has received a refund of the core cost of the tickets he bought. But he does not get his £32 worth of booking fees back. I don’t know if Mr Filer could bring a claim in a civil court; but certainly in the court of pure pedantry, a booking fee is an additional charge on a ticket to see an event. Perhaps Bryan has a view.