Quentin Letts, in the Daily Mail, reviewing the RSC production of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich by Restoration writer Mary Pix, takes particular issue with the casting of one of the roles.
He feels the character, in this long-neglected Restoration comedy, has been misconceived, and should be played differently. I have no problem with that. It is Mr Letts’ opinion. I happen to disagree with him.
However Mr Letts then goes on to suggest that the reason the actor is wrong for the part is because he is black, and accuses the RSC, (of which I am proud to be the Artistic Director), of inclusivity box-ticking, under pressure from the Arts Council, and that we are more concerned with “social engineering” than the business of drama.
Rather like some old dinosaur, raising his head from the primordial swamp, and blinking in disbelief that the world is no longer as he expected it to be, Mr Letts should consider who we now are. And perhaps he should attend to Hamlet’s advice to the players. The Danish prince reminds the actors that the purpose of playing, “both at first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature, to show… the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. In other words, theatre has always, and must now, reflect the society in which we are living.
If you are part of the rising number of the UK population which identify as people of colour, (roughly 40% in London) and you do not see yourself reflected on our stages (or in our media) then why should you engage? Why should you consider theatre, or in our case particularly classical theatre, as relevant to your life?
The RSC has always been at the forefront of challenging assumptions, of representing the entirety of our community, of championing equality, diversity and inclusion on our stages.
Sixty years ago this year, Trinidadian Edric Connor became the first black actor to perform in Stratford-upon-Avon. He played a calypso-singing Gower in Tony Richardson’s 1958 production of Pericles.
In 1992, my own directing career with the RSC began with The Odyssey. It was adapted from Homer by Caribbean poet Derek Walcott - the first black writer to be commissioned by the company. Coincidentally, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature during the run. The cast included a young Sophie Okonedo and Rudolph Walker.
A few years later, at The Other Place, I directed Biyi Bandele’s adaptation of Aphra Behn’s novella Oroonoko set both in West Africa and the West Indies. The cast, consisting of ten black actors, were cross cast through the entire season, meaning that for the first time the Stratford company was nearly 40% black. Out of that company came a young actor called David Oyelowo. The following year David was cast as Henry VI, the first black actor to play a king in one of Shakespeare’s history plays. Despite his critically acclaimed performance there were many who could not accept a black actor playing an English king, thus confusing history with drama. The outcry was deafening.
Surely times have changed. Not according to Mr Letts.
In 2012, we presented our first Shakespeare with an entirely black cast: Julius Caesar, set in contemporary Africa, with Paterson Joseph, Cyril Nri and Ray Fearon, as Brutus, Cassius and Antony. Why? Because it illuminated the play in unexpected ways, and because we could. Because in the intervening decades since Edric Connor’s debut, generations of black actors have trained and honed their skills and are as at home with heightened classical text as any of their white colleagues. Their only drawback - the lack of opportunity to test those skills.
In that same year, 2012, Meera Syal and the late Paul Bhattacharjee also celebrated Shakespeare’s universality playing Beatrice and Benedick in a riotous production of Much Ado About Nothing set in Delhi.
But we always need to do better in reflecting our community. In 2012, a production of the ancient Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao, adapted by James Fenton, attracted some criticism for not providing enough opportunities for actors from the British East Asian community, a challenge we began to address in Guan Hanqing’s Snow in Midsummer adapted by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, in spring 2017 as part of our Chinese translation project. This riveting production boasted blazing performances from Katie Leung and Wendy Kweh in a universally excellent and entirely British East Asian cast.
In 2015, Hugh Quarshie, who had been one of the pioneer black actors at the RSC in the 1980s, finally played the iconic “black” role, Othello, the Moor of Venice. Opposite him, Lucian Msamati was the first black Iago at the RSC. Rising star, Paapa Essiedu enriched 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, by becoming the first black actor to play Hamlet at Stratford, and not before time. This ground-breaking production has just toured the UK and opens in Washington next month.
Josette Simon, another pioneer, the first black actress at the RSC in 1982, played a scintillatingly volatile Cleopatra in our Rome season last year. Meanwhile Sope Dirisu conquered Coriolanus; Chipo Chung gloriously created the title role in Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage; and this season Joan Iyiola has just triumphed as the eponymous Duchess of Malfi, in the Swan Theatre.
Major actors playing major roles cast not because of their heritage, but for the simple reason that they are supremely talented performers. And those criteria apply across our theatres, and throughout our casts.
We don't cast actors because we want to tick any boxes, but because they are right for the part.
The Prince of Morocco, in The Merchant of Venice, declares “Mislike me not for my complexion”. I would direct his words to Mr Letts. By all means challenge our actors for not measuring up to your expectations, but not, surely not, on the basis of their colour.
Wouldn't it be good to mark 60 years since Edric Connor’s first appearance on the Stratford stage, by celebrating rather than deriding the greater richness that a truly diverse creative team can bring, with companies of actors and work by writers which genuinely reflect the Nation, which can broaden our understanding of the classics, and deepen what we mean by culture.
Gregory Doran, RSC Artistic Director
9 April 2018