By Jacob Whitehead
Consider this earth-shattering image – Hamlet walks onto the stage, skull in hand, tears in his eyes, revenge on his mind. The audience gasp. The actor stumbles, shocked. Has he forgotten his lines? Is the audience being choked by dry ice? Is his fly undone? Something far stranger has occurred. This Hamlet is being played by a minority actor.
To be blunt, British theatre has a dirty little secret. Not a startling lack of emerging playwrights. Not dwindling public participation in the arts. Not even Tom Hiddleston. Acting roles for ethnic minorities in the UK have regressed.
Who’d have thought that 87 years after Paul Robeson’s Othello, his portrayal of the doomed Moor would be considered a high point for inclusivity in the British arts? Don Warrington was the first BME actor to play Lear for 20 years, alongside an all-black cast. Only established TV star Adrian Lester has ever played Henry V as anything but white. There has never been a black Richard the Second.
Acting roles for ethnic minorities have regressed
But what about Hamlet? Generations of minority actors have faced the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Paapa Essiedu’s groundbreaking portrayal of the doomed prince last year for the RSC was a key step in the right direction, but we need to go further.
This is exactly why Riz Ahmed‘s casting as the Dane in a Netflix adaptation is so significant. A bona fide British BME star is to play the greatest role acting has to offer. A part on which lasting reputations are made, or broken. A chance to play the procrastinator’s procrastinator. And what makes this particularly significant is the medium. It’s not a mere three-week run at one of London’s most exclusive theatres. It’s not a production so alternative you’re lost in the Shoreditch backstreets, still trying to find it. It’s part of the Netflix behemoth.
Make no mistake, Netflix is the Globe Theatre of our times. It’s where we go to laugh, cry, and occasionally chill. Yet it is the Globe on a macrocosmic scale. If all the world’s a stage, then Netflix is the stage that can be seen by all the world. We consume in our beds, on our phones, in our underwear. We don’t have to don top hats and tailcoats to watch the latest privately-educated darling fresh off the RADA pipeline. There are 110 million subscribers, dozens of original shows, and a shoot budget to rival the GDP of a small nation. The power of the theatre has been decimated, and so the importance of a BME actor playing Hamlet on Netflix cannot be understated.
Consider the platform’s impact on popular culture: a world without Making a Murderer, Stranger Things, or Narcos. Imagine the Hamlet memes! Netflix’s progressive nature has undoubtedly played a part in their success. Their hit shows and stars are the antithesis of theatre’s elitism. There is no white middle-class stranglehold in shows like Black Mirror or Orange is the New Black; minority stars are not squeezed in to fulfil a quota.
Netflix is The Globe of our times
Hamlet’s transferral to Netflix should be more worrying to theatre impresarios than they may realise. The streaming service’s mobile, classless, youthful consumer base is everything your Tuesday night theatre audience isn’t. Riz Ahmed’s star is now far more likely to grow through the Netflix grapevine than a West End wine and dine. How many 6th form common rooms are punctuated with theatre discussion, save for the more artsy wings of some of our most famous pub-lic schools? But consider the buzz about The Crown, Better Call Saul, or Beasts of No Nation.
Theatre does owe BME actors a living. But they are equally reliant on doing as such for their own survival. A whitewashed Shakespeare is Romeo and Juliet without the sacrifice, Hamlet without the introspection, Othello without the racial tension. The white, middle-class stranglehold needs to be broken, not only in the interests of society, but for the sake of British theatre, the very productions which seek to prolong it. For them to change, they must be threatened, confronted on their own territory.
Ahmed’s potential performance of theatre’s greatest role could be the most significant Hamlet of our times, not only for his acting skill and verve, but for its potential to add colour to the drabness of British theatre.
Photograph: Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities (MAC) via Flickr and Creative Commons