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Reinvention: rethinking gender and race on stage

It was late March 2019, and my friends and I had just managed to grab some last-minute tickets to see The Taming of the Shrew at the RSC. Even though I do not live not far from the RSC, until this point, I had never seen a Shakespeare play live. Keen to make up for lost time, I was excited as we piled into the cheap seats that our hastily-bought student tickets afforded us. Not even the obstruction of several pillars could dampen the sense of anticipation that lingered in the air.

I must also add the caveat that I hadn’t even read The Taming of the Shrew and only had the vaguest sense of the plot from my childhood obsession with 10 Things I Hate About You. So, apart from the notable absence of Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, this production immediately stood out for its reversal of gender roles. For a play noted as a witty comedy of female submissiveness and relationship woes, there was a horrific poignancy in the subjugation and gaslighting of the male Kate within the context of the #MeToo movement. Though the reversal was largely played for comic effect, it felt jarring as the entire perspective of the play shifted. It felt daring and bold and thought-provoking — exactly how theatre should feel.

This production was clearly not the first to play with expectations of gender or race. From Patrick Stewart’s portrayal of Othello in a race-reversed cast to Tamsin Greig’s masterful evocation of Malvolia, the Shakespearian world offers realms of possibility for reinvention. The all-black theatre company Talawa produced its version of King Lear in 2016, providing a framework to explore the political tensions of the Windrush scandal and the Brexit referendum. This diversity of casting provides a diversity of experience on stage and often raises interesting tensions which breath fresh new life into the well-known works.

When whiteness is incidental to characterisation or the gender of a character is not explicitly stated, a meritocratic approach to casting should be applauded and championed. Critics of colour-blind casting often drone on that it threatens the verisimilitude of the performance and that seeing a black Eponine or an Asian Elphaba on stage detracts from their total immersion in the play. These people are willing to suspend their disbelief when they see a misunderstood witch bursting into a catchy ballad at the drop of a hat or French rebels putting aside their urgent political activism to rally together on the barricades for a belting encore in Act Two, but draw the line firmly on seeing racial diversity on stage. If this is the hill that they are willing to die on, their argument is at best tenuous and at worst dangerously misguided.

Diversity on stage should be the status-quo. If theatres are to be the bastion of daring and bold creativity that they should aspire to be, they should break down the traditional constraints on who does and should play roles on stage, like the musical Hamilton does by recounting America’s past through the diverse lens of the present. Those who argue that colour-blind casting always poses a threat to the integrity of plays and musicals should get their head out of the sand. If everyone always tried so ardently to preserve the ‘essence’ of theatre, whatever that may be, we would still be stuck with the outdated mentality of Shakespeare’s era that women should not be able to act on stage. Theatre should be synonymous with reinvention and change.

However, colour-blind casting is not without its problems. Arguing for ‘colour-blind’ casting can be a myopic way of tackling racial inequalities. It is the thespian equivalent of parroting “I don’t see race”. Race, and gender, are inextricable parts of many characters and to ignore the tensions that they can create within a play does a disservice to actors and cements inequalities. These factors should not be the only parts of a character that matter — we have moved beyond this reductive, archetypal approach to diversity — but casting directors need to be conscious of the choices that they make. If people of colour are inadvertently always cast in the role of the villain or the outsider, this can further entrench racial stereotypes. If stories with racial tensions at the core are not faithfully represented, it undercuts the very real and horrific abuses and violations of the rights of people of colour. If playwrights that identify as LGBTQ+ or as people of colour are not afforded the right to write their own stories, their voices become silenced. Marginalised actors should not just be shoehorned into pre-existing plays without any respect or provision for the stories they have to tell. To do so is to package diversity into commercially successful morsels that are digestible for largely white, middle-class audiences.

Theatre should be daring and bold and thought-provoking. My first experience of the RSC opened my eyes to that. Theatre has the duty to reflect diversity and prioritise an inclusive approach to casting. But this approach should not be blind; it is more glaringly obvious than ever that casting directors should approach their role with a critical eye, conscious of the possible ramifications of a thoughtless approach to diversity but always aware of the transformative benefits of a thoughtful one.

Image Credit: Ikin Yum / RSC.

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