By Tom Pymer
In 2015, Royal Shakespeare Company Director Iqbal Khan, broke with over four hundred years of dramatic tradition when he cast a black man in the role of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. This was an interesting move in itself as it dragged the focus of the play away from the typical racism with which Iago is often associated and became increasingly about the jealousy and psychology between the two men. However, many saw this as a reflection of the increased amount of race-blind casting that is occurring in the acting profession.
That said, there is still a great deal of prejudice present. Consider, for example, the announcement that the role of Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child would be played by a black woman. J. K Rowling herself was one of the ones who supported the move, arguing that she never specified Hermione’s skin colour in the books. The role of Iago mentioned above was also criticised as people claimed it detracted from the racism Iago demonstrates in the play – racism which is arguably his major motive for his actions against Othello.
So is it the audience’s perspective or the director’s choice that leads to this attitude over race-blind casting? It would appear to be a mixture of both. It is a sad fact that, since 2000, the RSC has cast only 17 actors from ethnic minorities in lead roles in Shakespeare. On the other hand, an all-black film, Moonlight, recently won the Oscar for Best Picture. Prejudice is becoming lesser. The film industry is, of course, different, but the performing arts do to some extent reflect one another.
But is there anything inherently racist about being opposed to gender-blind casting? In the case of The Cursed Child, many protested because Emma Watson, who they consider as the face of Hermione, is Caucasian and thus it was a major departure from what had been hitherto established roles by casting a black actress. Yet to my knowledge, nobody has batted an eyelid over all the centuries where characters like Cleopatra has been played by white actors. Although there is an element of setting, there can be so many new things brought by fresh perspectives. Why then do we complain when actors do not fit our personal image of what their characters should be like? Theatre explores different perspectives and ways of doing things and should be applauded for this.
To put it bluntly: the world should move on. Race-blind casting is not wrong in itself, and there is little doubt that the role of Iago will still be dominated by white actors. But there is very little else that could have the same argument applied to it. Any play that is performed can always have a new take put on it by a different character, a different actor. Instead of being opposed, this should be celebrated. And who knows: perhaps one day we will be sitting around discussing the new and radical move by the RSC to cast Othello as white and Iago as black.
Photograph: Indi Samarajiva via Creative Commons