I had a class recently by a lecturer named Imke Lichterfeld. It was a research seminar about casting in Shakespeare productions for the modern stage. Central to the class was an article written in The Telegraph criticising casting choices that did not adhere to the writer’s conception of appropriate casting for Elizabethan drama, and its response by Gregory Doran, Artistic Director of the RSC. Imke then examined the issue through a few different lenses, namely, sexism, racism and ableism.
I know that there’s controversy when POCs are cast in Shakespeare because of some notion of historical accuracy, but since the alternative is that non-white actors aren’t able to be in Shakespeare, I really don’t see the problem. In theatre especially, drama is a construction. On stage and on screen, characters are played by actors pretending to be them. Many, many productions have played around with historical settings as expressed through costumes, sets and props. ITV’s Othello (2001) is set in the ranks of the contemporary metropolitan police. In 1995, Ian McKellan played Richard III in a setting inspired by 1940s wartime Britain. Branagh’s 1993 production of Much Ado About Nothing uses faux-regency styles. In 2010, Patrick Stewart played Macbeth in a 1960s setting. Julie Taymor’s Titus Andronicus (1999) is set in a weird mix of Ancient Rome and Rome under Fascism. My favourite version of Othello is Trevor Nunn’s, where Ian McKellan played Iago, opera bass-baritone Williard White played Othello and the costumes resembled First World War uniforms. My friend Tabea and I saw a production of Much Ado About Nothing in Cork’s Everyman Theatre where the cast was a pack of Irish people on a drunken caravan holiday. The director, Ronan Phelan, said in the talk afterward that he associated that environment with his aunts’ country and western music, so the play includes musical numbers inspired by the genre. I liked that the play allows for that level of self-expression. I just don’t think that Shakespeare’s texts rely on preserving the time in which they were written and first performed. I think they work outside of that context. I think it’s entirely up to the directors, producers, performers and casting people to work with the text to realise their own vision.
Imke spoke at length about how POCs are often cast as the bastard, a choice which strikes me as fairly uninspired, to be honest, and it also has unfortunate implications from the text. In Shakespeare’s time, bastards, since they originated outside of a union not sanctified by the church, were considered base, a concept frequently reflected in their lines. She also told us about some productions where disability was integrated into the play, such as when deaf actress Charlott Arrowsmith in Troilus and Cressida. She played Cassandra, an oracle doomed to speak truth but who no-one believes, and she spoke entirely in British Sign Language. Fellow MA student Mylissa mentioned a production of Hamlet where the ghost of the old king spoke only American Sign Language. Everyone else spoke in English and no-one understood him- except Hamlet, who would speak back to him in his own language. Casting for the differently abled can, in fact, add to a performance.
Of course, there’s ample precedent for different gender casting too. The best-known would probably be Helen Mirren as Prospero in The Tempest and Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Phelan’s production of Much Ado About Nothing cast a woman as the patriarch Leonato. Her name was Leonata, the pronouns were changed to reflect this and the play went on. In fact, I didn’t even know the part was originally male until someone mentioned it in the post-show talk.
I think that moving outside of the Elizabethan/Jacobean historical paradigm allows the texts to take on a new life or lives beyond the constraints of that time. They’re public domain works and I honestly think they work best as a resource to create a great range of productions. I don’t believe they need to be protected. If we can experiment with set, costume and prop design, why shouldn’t we experiment with how we design the cast? The new universe of creative options we can unlock is absolutely worth the cost of whatever it is we are supposed to have lost.