Sir Trevor Nunn's stance on diversity is dangerous

The director sets a bad precedent in saying an all-white cast gives historical verisimilitude

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The Independent Online

So much progress has been made on colour-blind casting in recent years, that I wasn’t sure the concept would ever be an issue again. Of course, there are issues over how fast the progress is and the numbers involved, and such people as Sir Lenny Henry keep these aspects in the public debate. But the concept itself is by now beyond argument. Or so I thought.

It’s surprising that it has been challenged again, and hugely surprising that the challenger is that great theatre director, Sir Trevor Nunn, himself long an advocate of diversity. Sir Trevor’s production of The Wars of the Roses, a version of Shakespeare’s history plays, which opens at the Rose theatre in Kingston next month, and stars Joely Richardson and Rufus Hound, will have an all-white cast. The lack of diversity has drawn criticism from Equity and Arts Council England. Sir Trevor responded to The Independent on Sunday recently that he had made an “artistic decision” to cast according to “historical verisimilitude.”

He went on to say: “The connections between the characters and hence the narrative of the plays, are extremely complex, and so everything possible must be done to clarify for an audience who is related by birth to whom. Hence, I decided that, in this instance, these considerations should take precedence over my usual diversity inclinations.”

Frankly, I would rather that Sir Trevor had said, look this is I think the best cast of actors available. That, at least, would have been his prerogative as a director. But his line of argument is bizarre. Complex connections and a complex narrative? I have just seen the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet, and the actor playing Laertes was black, the actress playing his sister Ophelia was white. And guess what, I had no difficulty at all following the narrative or the connections.

We theatregoers are real whizz kids, Sir Trevor. Once we’re told that people are related, we somehow manage to remember.

So what exactly does he mean? Because The Wars of the Roses will encapsulate several plays, and many family and dynastic relationships, does that make it harder to recall who is related to whom? Actually, I would have thought it would make it easier as you get to know the characters and their families over a long period, and Shakespeare lends a helping hand by constantly reminding us about the houses of York and Lancaster. But however easy or difficult, why on earth is it any more easy or difficult if some of the actors are black?

It makes no sense. Worse, now that Sir Trevor has said that an all-white cast is necessary when relationships are complex, and the narrative might suffer, now that he has uttered the words “historical verisimilitude” all sorts of plays could be said to need all-white casts. What about all those uncles that Richard the Second had? What about the complex familial relationships in some of Ibsen’s plays? And how on earth will children cope at Christmas if a multi-ethnic cast plays havoc with the complex connections and narrative of Mother Goose?

Sir Trevor has set back the cause of diversity on stage, not because he intended to, not even because he is having an all-white cast for this one production, but because his reasoning sets a precedent that is downright dangerous.




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