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.
Watch out for Ashley Madison the TV drama
Last week I expressed surprise at the lack of plays and comedy routines at the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe dealing with Scottish political issues such as independence and the electoral triumph of the SNP. Reader David McVey emails in agreement, but asks why the BBC is also not commissioning dramas on those issues. It’s a good point. The BBC is far too slow to dramatise political schisms for a mass audience, though I have a hunch it won’t be quite as slow to present a drama about the hacking of the data on the Ashley Madison 'affairs' website.
What is it with painters and ice cream vans?
I'm on the judging panel for the excellent National Open Art awards, and spent a day with my fellow judges looking at literally several thousand entries from aspiring and already successful artists, all at this stage anonymous. It was interesting in such a large selection of art to see what themes arose most often. It appears that British painters have a thing about bats, ice-cream vans and caravans, some derelict, some not. What this tells us about either the British psyche or the human condition, I have no idea.