Friday, November 01, 2019

Diverting from Diversity - The Doctor

Joy Richardson and Juliet Stevenson in THE DOCTOR
After the ORIGINS Festival in June, I did an interview for the Westway Trust’s new website, responding to the Festival as a whole, and particularly to brian solomon/ELECTRIC MOOSE’s beautiful community performance, WESTWAY SOLSTICE.  The interview raised the vexed and current question of who can / should / gets to tell particular stories in particular spaces at particular times.  It’s a question that has been worrying me for a while…. 

The current orthodoxy is that theatre about (say) Nigeria should be made by Nigerian people, theatre about China by Chinese people, and so on. In many ways, I’m in total sympathy with this. In 2013, when the RSC was being hauled over the coals for presenting the Chinese classic THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO with only three Asian performers in the cast (variously playing a Maid and two thirds of a dog), Border Crossings was held up as an example of a more positive approach, making CONSUMED with Chinese performers not only playing but creating the Chinese characters, including dialogue in their own language. It was our third co-production with a Chinese company, and representative of our intercultural, collaborative approach. Both in our own productions, and in the visiting performances which we bring to ORIGINS, integrity and authenticity are central to what we do.  

However, there have been occasions when I have been challenged about my own role in making this work. I have been asked whether it is up to me (“as a white male”) to curate Indigenous work for London audiences, to direct and shape the performances of Chinese actor-devisers, to bring a Ghanaian text to the English stage. My response has always been that Border Crossings’ work does not appropriate anyone else’s culture: rather its engages with other cultures in a positive and dialogic way, recognising that we are all part of a globalised world, in which we need a dynamic and democratic interaction between cultures and artists in order to imagine how we can jointly inhabit that global space. I happen to come from one of the the countries that was responsible for the colonial processes that brought globalisation about - but that should not exclude me from the current discussions. If we are to recognise how our histories brought us here, then we had better not exclude anybody. If we want our theatre to make a real difference, even on the most basic “diversity agenda”, then it needs to speak to white audiences as well as black ones; to advocate for inclusivity by demonstrating it - not by ghettoising.

It worries me that British theatre seems currently to be stuck in an unhealthy position, uncomfortably close to racial essentialism. The orthodoxy is becoming that ONLY Chinese people can talk about China, ONLY Rwandan people can talk about Rwanda, ONLY gay or queer people can talk about sexuality….  and so on. While I absolutely do not deny the centrality of viewpoint, it is not healthy or progressive in a multicultural space to set up barriers to participation and engagement.  To exclude white males from the debate simply reverses the status quo: it does not lead us towards the equal space that we should surely crave.  

Robert Icke’s superb production of THE DOCTOR (which I saw recently at the Almeida, and which transfers to the West End in the New Year) suggested a radical re-think in the way theatre responds to “diversity”. It had a very diverse cast - in many different ways, not just racially. However, with the exception of Juliet Stevenson in the central role, and an important scene which was actually about the theorising of viewpoint, the casting was emphatically not done on the basis of race, gender, or other “identity” characteristics.  Indeed, there was a deliberate distancing of the performers from the roles they were playing, with the effect that the audience became actively engaged in a creative and political dialogue with the production. For example, the character FATHER was played by the Irish actor Paul Higgins.  FATHER is a Catholic priest, who Stevenson’s Doctor RUTH prevents from seeing, and giving the Last Rites to a dying girl.  The natural assumption, as the audience hears the actor’s accent, is that the priest is Irish.  So it comes as a shock, a disruption, when we discover through the dialogue that he (the character, not the actor) is black.  Does this change how we think about the situation, we find ourselves asking.  Should it?  Why should the priest’s race make a difference?  If the production had been cast by race and gender, by essentialism, then it would not have been able to raise these important questions about race and gender in such a powerful and disturbing way.  In this instance, it seems to me that the approach to diversity that aims at equality through literal representation is shown to be potentially quite conservative - allowing the audience a complacency around their own liberal assumptions.  

At the heart of Icke’s production was Joy Richardson, who played OLIVIA in our 1999 production of TWELFTH NIGHT, which toured Zimbabwe for the British Council. Joy is a very distinctive figure: a woman of African descent who was born in Guyana. During the play, it slowly emerged that she was playing CHARLIE, RUTH’s lover who died some time before. What was extraordinary was that, even in the closing scenes where this character came to the fore, there was never any indication as to whether CHARLIE was black, white or Asian; female or male (or other). This did not reduce in any way the emotional power of the relationship between RUTH and CHARLIE, or the sorrow of the loss. Indeed, it gave a strange purity to the emotion, precisely because it seemed to move beyond the bounds of “identity”. I’m not suggesting that the play somehow took the audience towards “the universal”, which remains a Western myth, used to subsume other cultures into a Judaeo-Christian world view; but it did suggest that in the most fundamental, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of our lives, in love and death, there is a common humanity that goes beyond the politics of identity and separation. Love reaches beyond the self - that it the whole point. And death is the one thing we have to agree really is universal.  So perhaps the body, which has come to be read as the signifier of difference through identity, might also be the means by which we come to the next stage of our cultural and political journey.  
Adjoa Andoh as RICHARD II
Theatre is not a literal space: it does not attempt to reproduce reality, or to signify reality through the precise representational approach of film. Rather it constructs a metaphorical space through which we can confront what is strange, constructed and unreal in our own lives.  This is why Brecht deliberately set his plays in metaphorical, distant worlds, revealing the constructed and performed nature of our societies through the medium of theatrical un-reality. That is why, although THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHUAN is apparently set in China, Jane Horrocks could play Shen-Te and Shui-Ta with impunity - just as Adjoa Andoh was such strong casting as RICHARD II at the Globe.  The freedom to diverge from a literal and essentialised “reality” has to be central to a political theatre that de-constructs the fictions of established structures. 

The delight of this approach to diverse casting is that it avoids the pretence that an audience can simply ignore the physical characteristics of the bodies on stage before them, often called “colour-blind” or “gender-blind” casting. That is just a lie. When somebody stands in front of us, the first things we notice are the physical carriers of identity. As August Wilson put it in his famous 1996 talk “The Ground on Which I Stand”:

“Colourblind casting is an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of the Cultural Imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection….  For a Black actor to stand on the stage as part of a social milieu that has denied him his gods, his culture, his humanity, his mores, his ideas of himself and the world he lives in, is to be in league with a thousand nay-sayers who wish to corrupt the vigour and spirit of his heart.”  

This is every bit as true of European, including British, culture. A theatre that is alive to the complexities of the current moment will acknowledge the histories that Wilson cites, and will cast performers not to assimilate them all into a tradition of theatre that remains just as it always was, and not merely as literal representations of “real”, “other” identities. The intercultural theatre required by the 21st century will cast people because of who they are, because of what they can bring to a role - but not in the naive way that pretends the performer actually is the person they are representing. It will recognise that the playful nature of the stage offers us the opportunity to read a character through the eyes of a performer - setting up multiple viewpoints on the action and its significance. We need a theatre that opens up our minds and our emotions - not one that reduces our cultural politics to racialised essentialism.