There has long been a debate on whether ethnicity and gender should be taken into account when casting, especially in plays which are set in a particular time period. The new David Copperfield film has reignited this debate, with the decision to cast Dev Patel, of Indian decent, as the lead. Why is this still seen as such a controversial decision? And, while claiming to be more diverse than the film industry, has theatre made more significant progress?
Musicals on the West End have changed significantly in recent years in terms of diversity, with more and more parts being made for BAME performers, encouraged by the all-consuming fame of Hamilton in 2016. And while the proportions of BAME performers is looking increasingly representative (making up 38% in 2019), a closer look at the percentage of named roles reveals that it is still overwhelming white and male. This shows that BAME performers are often placed in the ensemble but only in a named role when the character is specified as being ‘non-white’.
It is a key concern as to why casting directors often seem to adhere to the original gender or ethnicity of the character when casting a role. One consideration often cited is historical accuracy, or respecting ‘how the playwright intended it’. In response to this, it is important to re- member that until the 1660s there were no women on the professional stage. Very few acting companies commit to this level of authenticity, and those who do are often met with an eye – roll, seen as clinging onto an ancient tradition built on misogyny and repression. The quest for complete historical accuracy is a fallacy, often making little difference to the quality of the production, and so the immersive quality of good theatre should be able to transcend the gender or ethnicity of the performers.
Nevertheless, there is the question of whether changing the gender or race of a character is always effective. One of the semi – superficial issues is that it can often become the centre of the production: the main talking point becomes the fact that Hamlet was played by a woman, rather than the quality of the acting and interpretation as a whole. I would argue that this is often the case when something different to the norm is attempted, and that it is merely growing pains which more frequent exposure to gender/race -blind casting would solve.
However, the director sometimes complicates the issue by actually changing the gender of the character, rather than just the actor in the role. Sometimes the pronouns remain unchanged, which is straightforward, but other times it is indicated that it is not merely a woman actress performing as a man, but actually that they have actually changed the gender of the character. Often this makes little difference, or actually positively enhances or changes the perspective of the play; however there are instances where this seems forced and detracts focus from the issues the original playwright was trying to discuss.
This most frequently happens in Shakespeare’s plays, for example in a recent production of Triolus and Cressida from the RSC in which there were several gender reversions. While the aim to balance the number of male and female actors equally is certainly admirable, the fact that many of the soldiers and generals are women undermines the original gender dynamics in the play and takes away from the poor treatment of Cressida, notably the way she is used like a commodity because of her gender. Nevertheless, it is admirable they are trying to say something new with Shakespeare’s 400 -year – old plays and attempting to appeal to a younger generation through modernisation of issues.
In the end, it is also significant to consider the fact that the reason why BAME and female performers are taking on roles not originally designed for them, is because there aren’t enough roles, especially leading ones, which are intended to represent marginalised groups. The focus on Caucasian men throughout history in theatre means that in order to keep these shows relevant, a shift has to be made, forcing diversity to a widening of perspective.
Image: Tracey Nolan on Flickr