Are period dramas and BME performers incompatible?
Julian Fellowes has defended the all-white casting on Half a Sixpence by stating “It is in keeping with period”. Whilst Fellowes justification may make sense to him it sounds ridiculous to everyone else when the National Theatre have cast British-Tanzanian Lucian Msmarti as the Italian Salieri in Amadeus, full period costume and all.
Fellowes later clarified on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row that he was perplexed by the casting choice but the comments he made still reflect a lot about Britishness and race. The Print Room at the Coronet, Notting Hill found itself the subject of #yellowface controversy. Howard Barker’s In the Depths of Dead Love was being revived at the West London venue and was cast with an all-white cast of actors. So far, so Half a Sixpence but all four members of the cast were playing Chinese characters and this provoked anger, not only from British East Asian actors such as Daniel York, Lucy Sheen and director of Chinglish (upcoming at the Park Theatre), Andrew Keats. The Print Room’s response was staggering
“It is not about Chinese society, culture or perspectives. If it were, the casting would be very different, naturally. Whilst the characters have been given Chinese names, that is to reference the abstract and the folkloric idea of the universal; we could just as easily be in the metaphorical area of Hans Christian Anderson, or, alternatively, the land of the Brothers Grimm. It is, in fact a very ‘English’ play and is derived from thoroughly English mores and simply references the mythic and the ancient. It has therefore been cast accordingly.
Woah. Let’s assume there was no racist intent in the casting but that statement certainly makes me feel uncomfortable. All ‘English’ plays have to have full white casts now? This is a damning but not uncommon view to have, for any British BME person who has been asked “where you from?” despite being British born and bred to those who have been abused in the street for looking foreign.
As to Fellowes comments about white Othellos it is a point I come back to time and time again. History of theatre has shown there are many parts for white actors, do they really need to black/yellow/brown up to take the very few parts aimed at BME actors. White Othellos have been done and done well. Take for example Patrick Stewart’s role as Othello. He was the one white cast member in a majority black cast.