This week, actor, director and playwright Steven Berkoff stirred up a bit of controversy when he responded to a review of a new production of Othello by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which casts black actors in both the roles of Othello and Iago. The review was written by Paul Taylor, for The Independent and opens with the words The days when it was thought acceptable for a white actor to black up as Othello are well behind us. It was this that seemed to stoke Berkoff’s ire, which ended up with him taking to Facebook with the following post:
Not surprisingly, this provoked a rash of responses from his followers who both applauded and condemned Berkoff in equal measure. The Independent followed their original review with an article by Jess Denham, who managed to get further comment from the man himself:
I believe actors of all colour, particularly black actors, should be cast for the immensity of their talents and not the slack-jawed nod to political correctness.
To reserve, out of the hundreds of Shakespearian characters, the role of Othello for black people only, is a form of racism in reverse and to me, particularly obnoxious.
What drama does is express the fundamental core of human existence and to omit one play, is like taking a major key out of a piano. The immense range and passion of a role like Othello belongs to all humanity. In its performance, it reveals the deepest part of the human soul.
Some of the greatest performances seen over centuries have been when an actor has taken on that particular part from Edmund Kean onwards. I would like to see black actors not only play Othello, but Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet etc.
The production in question has been universally celebrated by the critics largely for the casting of Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago (above). In his review Michael Billington comments that amongst other things the casting reinforces the historic bond between Othello and Iago, and helps to explain the trust the former places in his ensign allowing you to see exactly why Iago would detest a Caucasian Cassio who tries to show his kinship with the men by taking part in a rap contest during the Cypriot drinking scene. Dominic Cavendish, writing for The Telegraph talks about a crucial shift of perspective…..that makes this event…electrifying and that a blow is struck for diversity without at all diluting the play’s perturbing power. These are strong affirmative words.
Now all of this of course is part of a much wider debate about the casting of BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) actors in theatre and one not to be ignored. Of the play itself, Andrew Dickson writes an article for The Guardian, Othello: the role that entices and enrages actors of all skin colours, which explores the history surrounding the question of race in the play. But the crux of the discussion, highlighted by Berkoff’s post, is around colour-blind casting. An old friend of mine, theatre director Joe Harmston commented on Berkoff’s post thus:
It is appalling that black actors don’t get cast in what are seen as white roles – Hamlet, Lear, Stanley in The Birthday Party. A travesty that so many of our non-white colleagues find they have to go to the US to kick start great careers. Perhaps when we colour blind cast black actors in ‘white’ roles, we can think again of white actors in black roles but until then black actors are right to argue that Othello is theirs.
I tend to agree. However, for me as an international theatre educator based in South East Asia who needs to teach through the context of world theatre, the question of colour-blind casting is an ethical dilemma. I would love to direct my students in, say, A Raisin in the Sun, Sizwe Banzie is Dead, The Island or a whole host of plays that have indigenous Australians or native Maoris as central lead characters, but I just don’t feel that I can. Does that make a fiend of political correctness?
I’m not sure.