I hit upon something a few days ago that will change how I view acting from now on.
It started back in March. Hamlet had just gone to press and once again I failed to keep to my own rule of 'Thou shalt not read reviews'.
Being an unapologetic leftie I did what all young lefties do and read The Guardian. The review was positive, showering praise on the show's fresh take. But one line stood out above all else:
"A white Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive."
It bothered me. And I wasn't sure why. I wasn't offended. I wasn't upset. I was just intrigued. It was like someone had pointed something out to me that I hadn't noticed before. Why? Well, because I'm mixed race.
Many people don't pick up on it and it is completely understandable. My mum is a Filipina and just through sheer genetic lottery I inherited a rather lighter skin colour, what with my dad being an Englishman with Irish roots. Believe me, those Equal Opportunities forms are always a fun one for me. Seeing me tick the 'Mixed' box for race garners some rather curious looks. And listening to people hazard a guess always brings a smile to my face. "I wanna say something Latin? Puerto Rican?"
So when I read that line, "a white Rosencrantz", something just didn't feel right.
Fast forward 4 months and I am watching Exodus on BBC iPlayer. If you haven't seen it, watch it (although if you are anything like me you still need to watch House of Cards, Orange Is The New Black, How To Get Away With Murder, and re-watch season 1 of Pokemon. Last one just me? Ok. Cool). Exodus documents the crossing of immigrants from various countries in to Europe using lots of mobile phone and Go Pro footage. It's amazing, and at times difficult, to watch people tell their story so openly and honestly.
And then it hits me.
The reason that simple line, just 3 words "A white Rosencrantz", bothered me so much: it completely re-wrote my story. The story of who I am and who I consider myself to be. With just one line it felt like the delete button was pressed on my history and heritage.
As I fought back the tears watching Exodus, the importance of people telling their own unique story dawned on me. These people were documenting this so that their truth could be heard and seen. So that they weren't just a number. A statistic. They wanted their voice to be heard. They wanted to share how they felt, what they thought and what they did. They wanted to share their story with other human beings who will themselves have stories to share.
This is what we do in the theatre every single day.
As this epiphany grew on me I went back to think about Cymbeline and how it can feel like some crazy fairy tale that never really existed. But the truth is, the stories Cymbeline touches upon happen every single day in our world. If only we look and listen hard enough. Stories of lovers kept apart by parents, stories of children who have been separated from birth, stories of men and women who have hidden a shameful secret for so long in the hope of doing some good. I'm not saying that theatre is the cure to all ills, but what I am saying is that theatre invites us to share our stories openly and honestly in the hope that we can further make sense of this pale blue dot suspended on a sun beam which we call Earth.
For too long, like so many others, I have shied away from telling my own story for fear of disconnection. What if I tell someone something that is true about myself and they deem it to be a reason to hate me? What if I hate what I see in myself and I wish that it were different? As an actor, I now recognise, more fully than ever before, how it is my job to put myself in the shoes of another person and, as Hamlet says, “report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied.” Maybe then I can move others to understand how it really feels to lose a parent, or to fall in love, or to keep a secret. Maybe then I can invite others to share their deepest fears and to face life head on knowing that they are not alone. Maybe then we can stop killing each other when we realise how harrowing it is to see black men and women killed through "accidental judgements, casual slaughters, of deaths put on by cunning and for no cause." (Horatio in Hamlet, Act 5 Scene 2)
My name is James Cooney. And I play a British-Filipino Rosencrantz.