UPDATE since this piece was first published: The Black and Asian Performance Database has clarified that its database contains only productions that they have verified as including BAME actors, and not all Shakespeare productions across the board.
Of course I want to see lots of excellent black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) actors cast in lead roles. No thinking theatre lover wouldn’t. The best and most suitable actors for every part, please.
I am, however, disturbed by the distorted way in which last week’s report led by Jami Rogers for the University of Warwick and based on the Black and Asian Shakespeare Performance Database has been spun. Actors such as Paterson Joseph, Cynthia Erivo and Noma Dumezweni, have declared that too few BAME actors have been cast in lead Shakespeare roles in the last 85 years.
Let’s take a look at the figures. The database makes very interesting reading. It records, for example, sixty productions of Hamlet since 1930. In six of these the title role was played by a BAME actor. That means that BAME actors have succeeded 10% of the time and, actually, that’s a pretty reasonable reflection of their probable numbers in the industry.
BAME actors have succeeded 10% of the time and, actually, that’s a pretty reasonable reflection of their probable numbers in the industry.
The 2011 census for England and Wales reports that 48.2 million people – 86% of the population – identified as white. That leaves 14% to represent all non-white ethnicities. I don’t have Equity figures for the number of BAME actors there are in England and Wales but surely it’s reasonable to assume a similar percentage to the rest of the population?
That means that, to cite another example, for 16 BAME Violas to have been cast in 69 productions of Twelfth Night is actually pretty good going. It’s 23%. And whichever tragedy or comedy you look at you find the same pattern. BAME actors are not under-represented at all. And of course they are also frequently cast in support roles which some commentators have said is a sign that they’re being passed over for lead roles. Well, excuse me, but every actor I’ve ever spoken to is delighted, irrespective of ethnicity, to have any kind of role in a major production. This is a competitive industry.
It is trickier with the histories. Because the plays are based on real historical figures and everyone knows that they weren’t BAME there is, it seems a reluctance to cast non-whites. Perhaps it’s reasonable to cast to type as with any other casting? After all you have to cast a tall blonde as Helena and a short dark (often BAME) girl as Hermia in the Dream because it says so in the text. Some characters need to be young (Juliet) and others mature (Henry IV). Ethnicity is just part of physical type although, having said that, Adrian Lester was a terrific Henry V at the RSC in 2000 and his colour didn’t matter a jot.
No actor, of any ethnicity, wants to be cast for the sake of political correctness. They want to be cast because they have the ability to play the part well.
Given that around 10-20% of these lead roles, at least in the comedies and tragedies are played by BAME actors then I contend that there isn’t really a problem. The industry is lucky enough to have some fabulous BAME actors including Lenny Henry, David Harewood, Josette Simon and many, many more. But if their lead role percentage were suddenly to shoot up it would, I think, indicate casting for the wrong reasons.
No actor, of any ethnicity, wants to be cast for the sake of political correctness. They want to be cast because they have the ability to play the part well. And given the proportion of BAME people in our community that means that there will be around nine white actors for every non-white one.
But do let’s do something about Cleopatra. Is there really any excuse for her ever being played by a white actor? Surely a BAME actor should always be cast – as with Othello or Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus – to play Shakespeare’s sultry passionate queen with her “tawny front”? In fact only 14% of Cleopatras, five in 34 productions since 1930 have been BAME actors.