11 December 2019
I was talking to a young actor the other day who told me that every single reviewer who mentioned his name in their review of a production he was in earlier this year also mentioned the fact that he is black, despite the fact that the colour of his skin had nothing whatsoever to do with his performance.
Not so long ago there was great excitement about the RSC’s first ever black Hamlet – overdue, of course, but welcome. One reviewer couldn’t quite stop himself from mentioning that one of the other characters was played by an East Asian actor. You see, a black Hamlet now and again is a novelty we can all get behind, but let’s not get carried away and start employing performers of all sorts just because they’d be great in the part!
When a recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire cast a black actress and a white actress as sisters, a leading theatrical critic found it so impossible to see beyond the colour of the actresses’ skins that he was moved to write, “the two are evidently not ‘related’. Go figure.”
You can argue all you like about a simple lack of imagination. It’s true that watching and listening to drama in theatre, or on film or television or radio, requires a leap of faith: the famous ‘suspension of disbelief’. But this is much more serious than a lack of imagination. In my view this is racism – pure and simple. Sometimes unconscious, but sometimes not.
There is a review in a popular weekly magazine of the BBC’s new drama series based on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which is utterly repellent in its racism. This reviewer not only cannot conceive of the idea – and let us not forget we are talking about a fantasy world here – that a black man could possibly be the Master of an Oxford college, he goes further and objects to a black man playing the ‘King of the Gyptians’. Presumably he wouldn’t have a problem if either of the very fine actors in question were playing servants or, at the very least, a character from the lower echelons of society. We are clearly in very dangerous territory here.
It seems that some racists – perhaps encouraged by the inflammatory language used by certain political leaders in recent times and during the Brexit debates – are becoming increasingly bold in asserting their poisonous views. We must fight this trend with every fibre of our beings. We must be constantly vigilant and root out and expose racism wherever we find it. Our industry is famously open-minded and open-hearted and we must do all we can to keep it that way.
Also, I do just want to say that the wonderful Sophie Partridge was very much on my mind at the official opening of our new accessible Scottish office in October. I wish Sophie had lived to come up to Glasgow for a visit and use the lift and make use of the other facilities that are now available to our membership in all its diverse glory.
Happy holidays and may your god, if you have one, go with you.