The Rose Theatre in Kingston recently announced its cast for The Wars of the Roses, its revival of the compilation by John Barton in 1963 of a bunch of Shakespeare's history plays (All the Henry VIs and Richard III) into a single continuous saga. Trevor Nunn is to direct and if anyone can handle the scale and pageantry of such an event, he can. It's a great idea to revive it and I was looking forward to seeing it. And then they announced the cast (above). A cast of 22 and not a single non-white face. Nor, apparently, anyone self-identifying as disabled.
The production's been quite strongly criticised for this, not least by Equity which has been campaigning for theatres to reflect the demographic of the acting profession. This has prompted the theatre to defend its casting decision. Apparently, it made its decisions on the basis of 'historical accuracy'.
What fresh bullshit is this? Historical accuracy?
(a) it's theatre, not a history book. In the theatre, old people play young people, young play old, rich play poor, women play men, men play women, black play white, chairs play thrones, backcloths play the fields of France, words play swordfights and on and on. Where did this demand for accuracy come from?
(b) It's the Rose Kingston, based on the non-realist Rose Theatre of Elizabethan London. It's an open, presentational stage; the audience can see the rest of the audience; it's not a theatre that tries to represent the world realistically. Historical accuracy is weirdly inappropriate for that space.
(c) How historically accurate are the original plays? Clue: not very.
(d) And these plays, the ones you are being so strict about, they were written to be performed with a small acting company who would just have the parts allocated between them - with boys playing the women. These aren't plays written for historically accurate casting.
(e) And how historically accurate is the rest of the casting going to be? Are French actors going to play the French? And, if you are going to be historically accurate, then you remember last year when they dug Richard III out of a car park and everyone could see his scoliosis of the spine. Why don't you have a disabled actor playing Richard III?
(f) Is a lack of black people historically accurate? There is archaeological and other evidence of Africans in Britain from Roman times and by the fifteenth century there were black people in English armies. These are big war plays. Why no black people?
(g) And anyway, in a big, ambitious project like this, that tries to show a whole nation at a moment of transition and flux, isn't it a great opportunity to emphasise the diversity of Shakespeare's characters and the range of his imagination with a cast that reflects our own nation in transition and flux? Why create an arbitrary rule that keeps Black and Asian actors out of your production?
In other words, the Rose Theatre is ignoring the nature of theatre, the nature of the theatre building, the nature of the plays and the theatre of Shakespeare's time, the nature of his history and ours, and the rest of its own casting in order to defend an all-white non-disabled cast.
The casting was bad enough; the excuse is even worse.
UPDATE. The wonderful actor, Tanya Moodie (who was in my A Modest Adjustment at the National), has forwarded me these details from Hans Memling's Seven Joys of the Virgin, painted as an altarpiece for the chapel at the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, but now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Note that this is dated as 1480, so basically painted during the events of Richard III Act I.
Notice anything? And you can see the full thing here.