Dr Jami Rogers is Honorary Fellow and Research Assistant for the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. She responds to Sir Trevor Nunn's all white casting for the Rose Theatre in Kingston's forthcoming production of The Wars of the Roses,
"One remark from 2012 I keep returning to because it is so striking: Mark Lawson's in a Guardian article discussing the BBC's Hollow Crown series. In it he observed that the Corporation's high-profile Shakespeare productions would "feature colour-blind casting – now standard in theatre." In the era when debates about the need for more diversity are legion, when Equity has adopted an Inclusive Casting Policy, and Act for Change recently hosted a major conference at the National Theatre on casting in theatre, Shakespeare is viewed as a bastion of diversity. The Rose Theatre, Kingston's forthcoming production of The Wars of the Roses has inadvertently re-opened that debate, as Trevor Nunn has assembled an all-white cast.
Having worked on issues of diversity and casting for several years, currently on the AHRC-funded Multicultural Shakespeare project at the University of Warwick, I have assembled a database of over 1100 productions that celebrates the work of ethnic minority performers and the productions in which they appear. The database has also illuminated casting patterns that are not always positive. This is particularly true of the Shakespeare's history plays which despite some high-profile breaking of the colour-barrier - notably Michael Boyd's casting of David Oyelowo to play Henry VI - are often much less diverse than productions of either Shakespeare's comedies or tragedies. Since 2000, there have been at least 13 professional productions of Richard II in the UK – comprising theatre, radio and television - and of those at least four have had all-white casts, including the RSC in 2000, the Tobacco Factory in 2011, and Trevor Nunn's Old Vic production in 2005. According to the statistics I have amassed, the role most often cast using a BAME performer has been Aumerle. The last time Bolingbroke was cast with an ethnic minority actor was in 1935 at the Old Vic when the Burmese-Jewish actor Abraham Sofaer was cast.
The Henry VI plays, which comprise two-thirds of John Barton's version of The Wars of the Roses, which are currently being rehearsed for the Rose Theatre, Kingston have fared better in terms of diversity - quite probably because they are not at the top of the Shakespeare hit parade. The weight of this performance history has highlighted the lack of diversity in Nunn's casting, precisely because David Oyelowo's casting at the RSC for its millennial This England histories cycle was widely publicized. Nunn is absolutely correct when he states he has been at the forefront of integrated casting policies for decades. He directed the first RSC production to cast a black Othello and promoted Hugh Quarshie from Sir Richard Vernon to Hotspur. Yet it is the reasoning put forth for the all-white cast in 2015 for Henry VI and Richard III that has almost singlehandly exploded the myth that classical theatre is a nirvana for ethnic minority casting. From a theatrical history standpoint, the claim of historical accuracy is troubling precisely because these plays have already tested that ground.
Nunn's casting director, Ginny Schiller, provided further detail to this rationale to The Independent, noting that he had "decided that because of the complex family tree and conflicting claims to the throne through direct lineage to Edward III, a naturalistic ‘colour aware’ approach was required....All the supporting actors will play many parts, and at some point in the trilogy take on roles who are related to the Houses of York and Lancaster by blood. This is why even those roles with no genealogical link to the families were also cast white.” The argument falls apart when held to account by theatrical precedent and I have seen every Henry VI cycle since the RSC first injected integrated casting into their productions of the plays in 1988.
The characters' lineages in Shakespeare's history plays are notoriously confusing, but the factions are relatively easy to discern through costuming choices usually by colour-coding them using the red and white roses of Lancaster and York. The RSC's major history cycles have also cross-cast the plays with most actors playing multiple parts and sometimes they were related to one another and at others not. Programmes for the history plays frequently have family trees, often with headshots of the cast in order to help the audience discern the factions, such as this from the RSC's 1988 cycle, directed by Adrian Noble.
As we can see, the family tree contains no ethnic minorities, but Adrian Noble's 1988 cycle did have ethnic minority actors playing multiple roles which caused no discernible confusion for the audience.
Michael Boyd's 2000 Henry VI, David Oyelowo, had a white son with a white wife (which asked questions about the Prince of Wales as the illegitimate offspring of Queen Margaret's lover the Duke of Suffolk) and Rhashan Stone as George, Duke of Clarence had white brothers and a white father. Again, there is no evidence the casting confused the highly educated audiences that make up the Shakespearean theatre demographic.
By 2006, it must have been thought that audiences had no need for visual cues in terms of the complex relationships between the characters as the family tree sufficed - sans actor head shots - in the RSC's programme for the revivals of Boyd's productions (above). The 2006 Henry VIs were more ethnically diverse than any previous history cycle at the RSC and were cross-cast over eight plays with actors asked to play considerably more characters. Ann Ogbomo's Queen Elizabeth had a multi-racial family while Boyd cast an ethnic minority actor to play the Prince of Wales, possibly to quell any questions about that character's parentage.
For nearly thirty years, the Henry VI plays have been cast inclusively, but Nunn's has broken the mould. If this were a one-off, the discussions brewing might be a gentle consciousness-raising exercise, but there are indications that the casting of all-white companies for Shakespeare's history plays is becoming part of a trend. The most recent production of Henry VI - a Globe touring company - also had an all-white cast, which went under the radar, most likely because it was not a main stage production garnering the usual media scrutiny of productions on the South Bank. There is a wealth of classical theatre talent that is under-used no matter what the actors' race or gender, but 'historical verisimilitude' is an argument that fails to convince in Britain in 2015. Even with the excellent cast assembled for the Rose Theatre's new production.
Tel: 02476 150423
Mob: 07876 218166