Let’s talk about something else … diversity in film and theatre

I did enjoy the film Yesterday, not least because the songs of the Beatles have threaded through my life.

But I was struck by one thing – the fact that the lead actor was BAME even though the part did not call for it. That is still quite rare in film these days. Danny Boyle has said that he chose Himesh Patel because he could both act and sing, and his voice had soul. “I wouldn’t have cast him if I had found someone better”.

I go to the theatre a lot and these days it is so refreshing to see colour blind casting, as well as casting that ignores gender, sexual orientation, age or disability. Of course, the key difference between film and stage is the latter’s appeal to the audience’s imagination.

In a theatre the actors invite the audience to conspire together to imagine that a minimal set is a desert, a country house, a ship at sea or a street in New York. The prologue to Henry V captures the essence of theatre: “And let us … on your imaginary forces work”. Similarly we all suspend our disbelief and go along with the idea that an actor is really a king, a social worker, a prostitute or a politician.

On the other hand, most movies aim for verisimilitude, so scenes are filmed in realistic settings and the actor is transformed with make-up, prosthetics or CGI to match the character’s appearance. It is noteworthy that, because Yesterday was a film and not a stage play, Boyle cast, as the parents, the wonderful Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal – two actors who look as though they could have produced Himesh Patel. In contrast, on the stage any ethnicity might have been encountered.

However, there is a dark history of institutional prejudice within the theatre.

In 2014 Lenny Henry gave the BAFTA Television Lecture on ethnic diversity (or lack of it) in the British film and TV industry.

Many years ago the practice of blackface was stopped, notably in the part of Othello (Lenny Henry himself gave a creditable performance with Northern Broadsides). Where there has been institutional racism in the past then affirmative action is needed, and must continue until it is no longer an issue. Gershwin famously decreed that all the cast in Porgy and Bess should be black, and there has been much criticism when people have tried to get round it.

I do look forward to the day when a white actor can again play Othello on stage (not blacked up, of course), but only because, when that happens, we will know that diversity has become totally embedded.

As far as gender is concerned, in Shakespeare’s time women were barred from the stage. Once women were allowed to act it then became impossible for a man to play a woman on stage (apart from in panto), or a woman to play a man, whilst the legacy of Tudor theatre was being erased. Today we have moved beyond that and, although still uncommon, gender switching does now happen. I am referring, for example, to a female actor playing a male character, not the rewriting of a male character as female.  I didn’t see Glenda Jackson as Lear but I can understand what inspired casting that was.

Last week 20 Jewish actors and playwrights wrote an open letter about the absence of Jews in the upcoming production of Falsettos, a play that relies on Judaism for its plot. It says:

This is not to say that every actor has to share the same religion, background or heritage as the role they are cast to play. But it seems evident that Falsettos needs Jewish representation within the rehearsal room to be made with the respect and consultation of those whose stories it seeks to tell and whose cultural heritage it looks to portray. Rehearsal rooms absent of living Jewish voices are in danger of viewing Judaism like a distant, historical, foreign element rather than a vibrant, contemporary and deeply relevant culture.

The argument here is not so much about ethnicity-blind casting, or about institutional anti-semitism, but about ensuring that the Jewish context is fully understood by those who are creating it on stage. That makes a lot of sense to me.

I once played Shylock in a rehearsed reading of The Merchant of Venice. As a non-Jewish woman I wanted to explore the back story behind Shylock’s flaws, and to present him as a character worthy of understanding, if not sympathy. I regret now that I did not discuss the part with Jewish friends, which would undoubtedly have helped my interpretation.

In the same way, it would have been unthinkable for the play Rotterdam, (which deals with trans and gay issues) to be staged without some LGBT members of the cast or creative team. But that does not, of course, mean that gay characters should always be played by gay actors.

We should always remember that actors are paid to pretend to be someone else. Casting should, as far as possible, be based on the ability to bring the character alive, not on the personal characteristics of the actor.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Malcolm Todd 29th Aug '19 - 1:31pm

    Thank you for this. A very well-explained, nuanced discussion of an issue that I have occasionally struggled with. I think I always agreed with what you say, but had not worked out how to say it!

  • Thanks for this article – diversity is an increasingly important part of my consciousness, even as a cis-white male (albeit an immigrant). Institutional racism, sexism and more is very much alive, even in the supposedly more liberal art world (I’ve actually found some of the worst subtle racism (as opposed to the admitted racism on the far right) to be found in middle class white people who consider themselves liberal).

    One thing about living in the US is how astonishingly racist a country it is, but I now look back on the UK and see how it was also racist in ways I didn’t see.

  • Meera and Sanjeev are, of course, a real life couple, so that possibly added to some of the vibe in the casting.

    I think in terms of x-blind casting, I agree with you to an extent. I approve of it if it’s more diverse than the part demands, but not if it’s less? I am sick of seeing cis actors playing trans people for example – a pox on Eddie Redmayne – but Elementary casting a trans actress as Mrs Hudson was great, and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson is amazing throughout that show. I’d love to see a black James Bond, and not just because I have a massive crush on Idris Elba, but there are few situations I can think of where I’d approve of a white Othello – an exception to that would be the time Patrick Stewart played Othello and the entire rest of the cast were black.

    Helen Mirren’s Prospera was fabulous, and Jodie Whittaker has rocketed up my chart of Doctors…

    One thing I would love to see more of is disabled actors in all sorts of parts.

  • Thanks, Jennie. One of the (many) striking things about Rotterdam was that the only straight character was played by a trans man.

  • I need to see Rotterdam

  • White middle class LibDem agonizes over racial and sexual orientation diversity among artistic performers while not once mentioning the way those from white working class and lower income backgrounds have been progressively squeezed out of Britain’s arts scene over the past 25 years. This is a completely tone deaf piece of writing that epitomises the reasons why the LibDems fail to win votes in the majority of the country.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 30th Aug '19 - 1:42am

    As ever from Mary, something sensible and thoughtful.

    I have experiences that relate to Mary’s comments here, and elsewhere on cultural issues. It is an excellent piece she gives us.

    As a person who has campaigned in recent years against antisemitism, the comments from Maureen Lipman, a signatory to the list re: casting, interested me this week, as she is someone I like immensely and agree with regularly. On this, we disagree. Commentary by me on this, just a few days ago, found agreement with Jewish colleagues I am very happy to add.

    Ethnicity and religion differ, as do their experiences. Jewishness is both . As a non Jewish young man twenty odd years ago, Jewish friends often thought on getting to know me, that I was Jewish. Especially in theatreland, this was the case. My love for and knowledge of cultural issues, historical too, a part of perhaps why.

    I then had the great delight of playing Fagin, and in front, one night, of Lionel Bart, the writer creator of Oliver. He congratulated me, he apparently cried during my reprise of reviewing the situation, moved.

    Should I not have played it? Patricia Hayes the great character actress, saw me in it and took on a role, in her early eighties as a mentor, to get my career going, and became more like a sort of grandma, friend, sixty years my senior.

    The greatest actor I ever saw nearly play Shylock, was, as an early twenty something then, was Patricia in her kitchen, she told me as a youth it, like with Mary, wasa part she loved, and did audition recitals with.

    She, wrinkled, grey haired, five feet, in front of me, young and five ten, acted out extracts, grabbed a kitchen knife, waved in my face, high, shouting, ” I shall have my bond!”

    I never shall forget it and was convinced she should have had it!

    John Forsythe was famous as the white anglo saxon, protestant, patriarch, Blake Carrington. A great actor and good man, born, John Freund, wholly, Jewish.

    Warren Mitchell was remarkable as Alf Garnet, bigot, loud mouth. Would he have been cast if casting were about reality, he was born, Warren Misel, he was Jewish.

    It cuts both ways. Blacking up is of course now, absurd. But we are all partly something, and many somethings share much in common.

    Acting is exploring.

    I shall play Shylock, inspired by Patricia. And Lionel Bart, John Forsythe, Warren Mitchell.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 30th Aug '19 - 1:50am

    Even as a writer, ethnicity is controversial. I am getting some interest in the musical I have written most of and is in development. Funding is hard to find however. One leading director was interested, but is scared of American reaction, as race and slavery, he thinks, is scary to tackle!

    Have a look at my website if anyone is interested…


  • Imagine for a moment that you live outside the bubble of liberal politics. Imagine that you are Worcester woman/man. You often go several days without having an intensely political thought. Your concerns are with your family, your job, your friends, maybe your football team. In other words you are NORMAL. But you have lost faith in the two big parties and are toying with the idea of giving your vote to the Lib dems if an election comes around any time soon and so you find yourself, but some strange serendipity looking at this site. Imagine all that.
    Now you find a tread that promises to talk about something other than Brexit. Very good you think. Perhaps poverty, education ? No. It’s about diversity. Your brow furrows, but, unperturbed you read on. And a few minutes later you are perplexed. You have found out that we take equality very seriously….well no problem there. You also find out that actors from ethnic minorities can play parts written for white actors, but not the other way around, that women can take male roles, that trans actors can play anybody but a CIS actor (they’re not quite sure what that means) can not play a trans role. Can a non Jewish actor play a Jew, or vice versa ? Who knows ? And you though equality meant anybody could do anything.
    So, who they going to vote for ? You call it !

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