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Tuesday, 19 September, 2000, 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK
The actor who would be king

The Royal Shakespeare Company has cast a black actor in the role of an English monarch for the first time. Is this tokenism, or a watershed for black actors breaking into the mainstream?

Should a director of a Shakespearean play decide to set all the action aboard a hot air balloon, it would most likely cause nary a ripple.

Theatregoers are well used to directors playing fast and loose with sets and props when it comes to staging the Bard's works.

We should serve Shakespeare better by not lacking in imagination

Yvonne Brewster
Yet the Royal Shakespeare Company's casting of a young man of Nigerian descent in the role of Henry VI has sparked a flurry of interest.

"First black king will be crowned in Stratford," said the Times, at the news that David Oyelowo, 24, will take the title role.

For years, all the major theatres - and a fair few regional and touring companies - have spread the casting net ever wider.

Not only is casting now colour-blind, with black Hamlets and German Shylocks, it is no longer gender-specific: women are taking on meaty roles such as King Lear.

Ian Holm as Lear
Shakespearean kings: No longer played by white-haired men
Purists may argue that there were no black actors in Shakespeare's day, but that argument would also exclude actresses - 400 years ago, the female roles were played by boys.

What pushed this casting decision into the headlines was the role itself, says Yvonne Brewster, the artistic director of black touring company Talawa.

"There's something very special about royalty. The English seem to think a king can only be an old, white man.

"We did King Lear with a young black man in the lead role, and it caused a fuss.

"The audience loved it, but from the critics' point-of-view it was the worst thing that could have happened: a black man, and not even an old black man."

But for theatre to strike a chord with audiences, it has to reflect the world in which it is staged, not the age in which it was written, Ms Brewster says.

Romeo and Juliet
Yvonne Brewster's Romeo and Juliet
"[Shakespeare] has lasted 400 years. Why he has lasted is because he is totally and utterly universal - and we have get out of this idea that what we see has to represent his world.

"Once we accept that a black man can embody the spirit of the king of England, we can just say: 'Let's go and see the play' and celebrate the man who wrote the words.

"We should serve him better by not lacking in imagination."

Her own version of Romeo and Juliet for the BBC's Shakespeare Shorts season, in which the black father came down hard on his daughter's relationship, was hugely resonant with young audiences: "And we never changed a word."

'Thatcher's children'

Earlier this year, film director Guy Ritchie complained to ES Magazine about the dearth of good black actors in the UK - a comment widely misinterpreted as a slur.

Adrian Lester in a more modern role
Adrian Lester fund fame in the US before landing Hamlet
He later insisted that his criticism was not of the actors, but of the casting climate that failed to foster their talents.

Nottingham Playhouse is a rarity in that it has a written policy encouraging the use of actors from ethnic minorities, even when there is no textual reference to race.

Venu Dhupa, the artistic director, persuades directors who arrive with a certain actor in mind to widen their search.

"A lot of the young directors who are breaking through today are Thatcher's children. As a result, they are not familiar with liberal ideas about inclusiveness."

A lot of my friends in the industry are constantly offered 'drug dealers on The Bill'

David Oyelowo
Oyelowo himself told the Times: "A lot of my friends in the industry have found it very difficult.

"They are constantly offered 'drug dealers on The Bill'. You can imagine how demoralising that is."

Actress Jo Martin, who starred in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Oroonoko, has also deploring the short-sightedness of television producers who only ring with offers of "black prostitute".

The temptation, she has said, is to shout: "Don't only cast black actors when the script says 'black'."

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See also:

19 Sep 00 | Entertainment
Black actor cast as English king
12 Dec 98 | Entertainment
The Street in black and white
14 Mar 00 | Wales
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29 Jan 99 | Entertainment
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