Letters: Why shouldn’t a white actor play Othello?

These letters appear in the 19 June edition of The Independent

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The Independent’s fine correspondent Adam Sherwin shows he thinks it controversial that Steven Berkoff should claim a white man might play Othello (“Berkoff’s black rage over white actor ban in Othello”, 18 June).

It is well known that Shakespeare refused to allow boys to play women, and permitted only black men to play black men, only witches to play witches, only Jews to play Jews, only kings to play kings, only murderers to play murderers, and so on. How else could he show respect for women, blacks, witches, etc?

Why, he even has a French princess speaking French, proof if any were needed. Is Berkoff suggesting actors should act? Whatever next?

Peter Robb
London N1


The problem with a white actor playing Othello is not the actor, but his make-up. Why cannot he play it in the colour he was born with?

We take it in our stride when white Prince Arthur in King John at the Globe has a (superb) black mother, or when, a few years ago, a white Henry V married a white fair Katherine of France and produced a black Henry VI.

Such suspension of disbelief may not be possible in Chekhov or Ibsen or Galsworthy, but it is in Shakespeare. What’s the betting that we will one day see a Comedy of Errors with a black Antipholus of Syracuse mistaken for a white Antipholus of Ephesus, or visa versa?

Peter Forster
London N4


If Steven Berkoff really wants to play Othello he should follow Patrick Stewart’s lead rather than resorting to “a bit of shoe polish”.

Sir Patrick eschewed “blacking-up” and surrounded himself with an all-black cast in Jude Kelly’s “photo-negative” production of Othello in Washington DC in 1997, to much acclaim.

Martyn P Jackson
Cramlington, Northumberland


Trade unions still have a job to do

Your editorial of 15 June, “Spoiling for a fight” – which title perfectly sums up the Tory government’s motivation for their proposed union legislation – goes on to denigrate the good work done by unions on behalf of their members by labelling them “near-irrelevant”.

Your contention that the real fight over union power will not be seen on the picket-lines but in the courtroom may well be correct, but you fail to concede the vital fact that it is trade unions who, by taking forward the fight on behalf of their members, enable the courts to scrutinise the fairness and legality of the Government’s proposals.

For their part, the unions, now under threat of harsher legislation, should reflect on their scepticism about supporting Labour, who, if they had been elected, would not now, I am sure, be giving the unions cause to resort to the expense of court actions.

James Gilbert
Mansfield, Nottinghamshire


Peter Howard displays a woeful lack of knowledge of the process by which trades unions make donations to the Labour (or any other) party (letter, 15 June). In doing so he is following the unvarying theme promoted by the right-wing press.

Union members must first sign up to paying a levy into the union’s political fund. The members then decide by ballot what the fund is used for. Leaders may well make recommendations but the idea of a union leader “giving millions of pounds of other people’s money to the Labour Party” is a figment of your correspondent’s manipulated imagination.

Contrast this transparent procedure with the part shareholders play when companies make donations to the Tory (or any other) party: zilch. 

Eddie Dougall
Walsham le Willows, Suffolk


What happened to Islamic science

The widely held view of “Islamic science”’, repeated by Christopher Walker (letter, 16 June), fails to explain why it ended. The reason why Islamic science failed to flourish is that it was crushed by Islamic theology.

Mr Walker approvingly quotes Rhazes (al-Razi, c854-c925). This sceptical genius wrote, in his Tricks of the Prophets, that people do not need the trickery of religious leaders – who denounced him saying he should stick to what he knew best, boils and excrement! His “blasphemous” views – representative of the very earliest years if Islamic rule when scholars still drew on the work of numerous preceding civilisations – were denounced notably by Al-Ghazali (b1058), who is still regarded as the greatest Islamic theologian.

His major work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, which established the normative view of Islam, denounced all such rational attempts by “heretics”, among whom he included the likes of Plato and Aristotle, to understand the mind of God, who rules absolutely and arbitrarily, without recourse to any so-called “laws of nature”. Subsequently, the Ulama/religious scholars, repeatedly burnt all medical and scientific books.

Dominic Kirkham


Posh? I prefer competent

Who wouldn’t prefer posh, asks Grace Dent (16 June)

For a sales person, or maybe a journalist, the ability to schmooze might be the most important skill. For an engineer, doctor, plumber and most things I’d rather they were chosen on ability to do the job. Grace Dent may put a surgeon’s bedside manner above a steady hand, but if I can’t have both I’ll go with the latter.

As for management, we’ve probably all worked for someone selected on their networking skills, self-confidence and familiarity with the culture of the bully rather than their business and managerial acumen, so I don’t need to explain the problems that brings (but I could quote the UK’s poor productivity record).

Being brilliant at saying the right thing is not the same as being good at what you do.

Dave Hefford


We just can’t  afford fracking

In dealing with the serious consequences of climate change, the creeping pragmatic approach will just not do any more.

Whatever the environmental results of fracking at ground level (“Planners give go-ahead for fracking test drills,” 16 June), its purpose is to extract a fuel that needs to be burnt to release its energy. It necessarily creates carbon dioxide, the enemy of a stable climate.

Humanity’s attitude to burning for energy has to change, and change pretty quickly now. This will take leadership and strategic work, and should not be left to bureaucratic fiddling at a local authority level.

David Gibbs
London SW4


The value of a  gap year abroad

I have to take issue with Janet Street-Porter’s writing-off of gap year voluntary work abroad as a pointless middle-class pastime (13 June).

A generation ago when, apparently, gap years didn’t exist, I spent six months as a volunteer teacher in Tanzania and (I admit) enjoying myself doing some of the backpacker stuff along the way. My plane ticket and spending money were funded by jobs in the UK before I left not by “mummy and daddy wiring money”.

Done well, this kind of experience can be life-changing. Walking in someone else’s shoes, even just for a few months, changed my perspective in ways that I still feel today. Without this experience 25 years ago I’d now be a more materialistic, more selfish, less broad-minded and less charitable person. It truly broadened my horizons.

I certainly wouldn’t belittle the value of voluntary work in this country, but please don’t tar all young volunteers abroad with the same brush because of the antics of one group.

Nick Burton
Macclesfield, Cheshire


Wilshaw denounces worksheets

Trust Big Mike Wilshaw to hit the educational nail on the head – twice! First to pillory teachers for giving out “scrappy worksheets” for homework (16 June).

The answer? Neat worksheets? No, give them textbooks (but not scrappy ones). But what if they don’t return them? Answer: scrappy worksheets are indicative of the low expectations that are responsible for poor performance of “bright youngsters from disadvantaged homes” and the school is responsible for changing the culture of lack of engagement in learning.

OK, how do we sort that? (Now for Mike’s other wheeze.) Get a maverick headteacher, of course. How maverick? Well, not too maverick.

Do you mean maverick like you, Mike? That’s it. You’re learning, son.

Martin Murray
London SW2


Chilcot: a damned close-run thing

At the rate things are going the Chilcot report won’t be published by the time we are commemorating the 300th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Come to think of it, has anyone yet seen the report of the inquiry into the Napoleonic wars?

Tina Rowe