October 6: England’s world-famous Royal Shakespeare Company has made a break with tradition. It has cast a black Nigerian actor, David Oyelowo, in the lead role of Henry VI, whose insanity unleashed a 30-year bloody civil war between two ruling parties, called the War of the Roses.
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is one of the oldest and most prestigious theatre companies of the world. It has been staging the plays of Shakespeare for many years now. Plays by RSC are considered the last word in Shakespeare on stage.
The British, who are very traditional people at heart, regard it as something of an institution, as they do the British monarchy. The notion of a black man playing the role of a King of England during one of its most crucial periods of history, might seem “not quite English” to some, though he may be the best actor for that role.
The RSC’s decision follows the decision of well-known director Peter Brook to cast a black actor Adrian Lester in the role of Hamlet, one of the most important Shakespearean characters, in his forthcoming film. (Brook is known for his stylistic film direction of the Mahabharata several years ago with actors drawn from different corners of the world.)
Will the RSC’s decision lead to any change in opinion, especially of white people regarding the blacks? Does it mean that more opportunities will now open up for black artistes on stage and in cinema as compared to early years?
No, says Hugh Quarshie, the first black actor to land a major ‘white’ role on British stage, that of monarch Henry IV, some time ago. “This is not a defining moment for black actors,” he said in an interview to ‘The Guardian’ newspaper, which was published in ‘The Deccan Herald’ recently.
“It is a lot easier to have non-traditional casting with Shakespeare. In fact, this seems possible only in the classics these days. The real problem for black actors come with modern plays and the cinema,” he said.
By real problem, Quarshie is referring to the prejudices that exist in popular cinema and theatre against people of colour. So Hollywood films will show blacks as the hero’s best friend, or as gun-wielding hoodlums, but rarely as the hero in a film peopled by whites.
Only when black actors routinely play Hamlet and Henry IV will casting become truly colour blind, says Quarshie. Until then one black actor playing a great white hero might well remain a fashionable new age experiment. It will not really change the popular opinion on blacks and other minority groups.