Arts feature

Shakespeare's Wars of the Roses is being staged without a single black actor. So what?

Ethnic and gender quotas are fast becoming the norm in the performing arts - but they shouldn’t be

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

Shakespeare’s ‘Wars of the Roses’ will have no ethnic minority actors in the cast when the shows (two Henry VI plays and Richard III) open at the Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames, later this month. A sprinkling of so-called BME (black and minority ethnic) actors in Shakespeare has been the norm for ages now. So the decision by the director to go with an all-white cast has caused much hurt and concern from the actor’s union Equity, the Guardian, and from various groups promoting racial diversity in the arts.

From all the fuss, you’d think the plays are being directed by a hooded white supremacist. In fact they are being done by Trevor Nunn, former boss of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, and not a chap you could accuse of political incorrectness. This is the man who once said that calling actors ‘luvvies’ in public was as offensive as using the n-word. Sir Trev does not have a racist bone in his body and no one has done more than he to update and popularise Shakespeare’s plays for modern audiences. His mistake on this occasion was, perhaps, to explain himself. His theory is that by casting the rival Yorkist and Lancastrian factions with white actors only, it’ll be easier for us to work out who everyone is. ‘Everything possible must be done to clarify for an audience who is related by birth to whom. Hence, I decided that, in this instance, these considerations should take precedence over my usual diversity inclination.’

I for one am happy to let him to do what he wants. But his argument doesn’t hold water. Fifteen years ago, when the RSC did this same cycle of plays, they featured David Oyelowo (now a film star) as Henry VI. He was the first black monarch at Stratford. He was so charismatic that it took less than ten seconds to adjust to the idea of a Nigerian-born Plantagenet. If an actor’s any good you don’t notice their colour. Besides, the medieval verisimilitude Nunn argues for is not possible unless you use only pasty, pox-scarred, five foot tall actors with green teeth. Even then the plays would be confusing because, well, they just are. In retrospect, it would have been better for Nunn to have said: ‘I’m doing them my way, it’s a project I have dreamed of doing for 50 years, judge it when you’ve seen them, until then please shut up.’

The whole question of minority quotas in the performing arts is currently a very vexed topic. In subsidised London venues, the ratio of black lead actors is about 5 per cent, rising to 7 per cent in the regions. This is too low, so Rufus Norris, artistic director of the National Theatre, is giving employment quotas a serious think. He dares, just, to cling to the idea of artistic excellence for the time being but one can see him caving in.


Nor is it just racial minorities who are banging the drum. Jenny Sealey, director of leading disabled theatre company Graeae, thinks producers who don’t employ disabled actors should actually be fined. It’s the opera world that particularly offends her. ‘There is no diversity whatsoever inside those opera houses, and that is disgusting,’ she said. But however ardent their hopes and dreams, for people with serious physical impairments — like not being able to sing — one wonders if a career on stage is a realistic ambition?

And what if a disability of some sort were to become a legal requirement for, say, 5 per cent of the jobs on stage? As The Spectator’s Lloyd Evans pointed out in his blog, out-of-work actors are an inventive lot: they will have no trouble faking exotic medical conditions, stammers, limps, learning difficulties and the rest of it. Who’s going to police the auditions? As things are, most able-bodied actors never get any work. It’s a life fraught with rejection. Most actors just sit at home doing sudoku and wait for their agent to ring while watching actors with famous parents in the business get all the jobs.

Gender rights, too, are being infringed. The director of the RSC (a company whose overall work force is 50-50 men and women) is under constant pressure, poor man, from women directors, some of whom think half of the actors on stage should be female. Audiences might just wear it. Maxine Peake, for example, was a fantastic Hamlet (Polonius was a woman, too, called Polonia) last year in Manchester. Recent all-women casts of Julius Caesar and Henry IV proved very popular. But you can do what you like with Shakespeare because his work is infinitely adaptable and he never complains. It’s less easy with new writing. The male white director of Headlong theatre company has announced the company would like half the plays they put on to be by women. A ridiculous idea when you think about it, reeking of sanctimony. Why should women write more plays just to please him? Quotas are for milk, not the stage.

The ‘Wars of the Roses’ is far more important for what it’s got to say than who is in it. It’s being promoted as Shakespeare’s Game of Thrones, but it is really much more like the Godfather films. It was a great landmark when the plays opened in Stratford, staged by the then fledgling RSC, in 1963. Directed by Peter Hall, there were swingeing cuts to the text and, more controversially, over 1,000 pastiche lines added by John Barton; the impenetrable bits of the three Henry VI plays were cut and turned into a thrilling two-part prequel to Richard III.

Trevor Nunn, who as a twenty-something director was mentored by Peter Hall and John Barton, has apparently wanted to re-stage this production for years. He now has the Rose Theatre at his disposal, a modern building whose stage configuration is modelled on the original Rose in London, where the plays were first staged. Joely Richardson will play Queen Margaret — ‘the she-wolf of France’ — who has an affair with the Duke of Suffolk and later mournfully carries his severed head around the stage. Maddened by the murder of her husband (Henry VI) and her son, she ends up in Richard III raining curses on him like a demented bag lady.

Although he staged them in chain-mail, in 1963 Peter Hall clearly thought Shakespeare had a great deal to say about the horrors of the Cold War era. So did a captivated audience. The whole point of doing these plays about war and grief is to find some sort of demand on our current attention. True, it seems rather retro to be staging them with a cast that reflects Britain as it was 50 years ago. But the project is nothing if not a labour of love. Nunn has brought in colleagues with whom he goes back decades: the designer John Napier, composer Guy Woolfenden and fight director Malcolm Ranson. It promises to be a clanging, bashing, artery-spraying epic — with a guest appearance by Joan of Arc — that all ends in an act of tyrannicide at the battle of Bosworth. What a shame the theatre’s most exciting autumn event has been soured before it’s opened.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

‘Wars of the Roses’ is at the Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames, 16 September to 31 October.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • lucath

    Black people are only 3% of the population – mostly in cities. Casting them as medaeival noblemen puts a lot of people off (17% bame but mostly Asian) especially in historical drama. Merlin I could go with as it is fantasy so with inexplicable multi racial births you can suspend disbelief.

    • porcelaincheekbones

      The Merlin ending was the worst thing I’ve ever seen on TV.

    • MadameDellaporte

      Completely disproportionate representation is something I have noticed lately as well.

      • post_x_it

        Not if you believe Lenny Henry, David Harewood and all the other professional moaners. Funny how they seem to have done alright, considering there are no opportunities for them at all.

  • Ken

    There were no Asians or black people in C15th England, so an element of unreality is generated by casting them in Shakespeare’s Histories. Elsewhere in ths issue Our Country;s Good at the NT is reviewed – casting a black actor as governor of the penal colony seemed odd.

  • Michael L Hays

    Casting should not be done by demographic distributions or quotas–period–but by talent available for the roles. Let us pay attention to the play–it’s the thing–and hope that this production is a good one.

  • Aethelflaed

    How about an all male cast for ‘Little Women’ then. Or let’s mix up the races for an new version of ‘Roots’ !! Let’s have a white ‘Ghandi’, or a male Titania.

    Oh, and I’d watch out for the men who dress as women – they don’t like other men dressing as women, when they are only pretending !!

    • Callipygian

      I’d like to see The Hobbit starring players from the NBA.

  • MikeF

    Ms Sealey sounds like one of those people for whom ‘diversity’ means conformity to her diktats. But leaving that aside Shakespeare’s ‘history’ plays are not in any sense historical – they merely use past events as a pretext to construct explorations of human psychology. As such though it would be absurd to have a black HenryV or VI or whatever in a feature film intended to be superficially realistic it really is of no consequence in a Shakespeare production.

  • porcelaincheekbones

    Acting is like modelling, they’re exempt from equality law in these matters.

    • Callipygian

      That’s it: the get-rich scheme I’ve been looking for! The Ugly Models Agency, with quota legislation to back me us up. Fabulous.

      • porcelaincheekbones

        Those already exist, it’s considered a niche.

        • Yes, I thought it sounded familiar. Mine would be Uglier, then. And Ruder.

  • MrFGordon

    Shakespeare was a close family friend of my ancestors the Underhills. If you have no desire to see British culture Africised, then say so.

    • vieuxceps2

      Yes,ok for British to be Africised,try Briticising African and wait for lefty to scream. The reason these pervy luvvy lefties want special rules for BME people is that they secretly fear that the poor souls are inferior. They are not of course, but lefties need to patronise them to assuage their secret guilt.

    • David

      OK, I say so. I don’t want British culture africanised, nor my nation.

  • Landphil

    In the name of diversity and equality, the Labour party needs a totally disfuntional and hard left leader – we’ll that’s sorted.

  • redrum

    Yes, I had a very odd experience recently. I went to see Beaux Stratagem at the NT and there was a black person and an Asian on stage. I am completely happy with ethnic diversity, but I couldn’t enter into the play given the historic anomaly this represented. It felt like someone was trying to impose a point of view on me rather than telling a story. Poor theatrical experience from my perspective and not a play I would recommend (for reasons other than the casting :)).

    • Richard

      A while ago there was an exhibition at the British Museum on Nigerian bronzes. I decided to hire the headset. It didn’t take long before the commentator said, “These bronzes, the equal of anything produced in ancient Greece…” Whether they are or aren’t isn’t the question. It’s up to me to make up my mind, not for somebody to tell me what I should be thinking. But that is what the Left does. It is a dictatorship of opinion, enforcing its own religious laws.

      • Gilbert White

        The Benin Bronzes there is nothing intrinsically good about them except inspired Spanish and French Artists.

      • vieuxceps2

        Agreed,. While we chuckle at the idiocies of Political Correctness,do not forget the brainwashing that lies behind it.That is what it’s for,to tell you what to think by conrolling what words you can use. No words means no thoughts,just as Orwell foretold.

      • MadameDellaporte

        Actually, call me rude, but I don’t think they are. Greek bronzes breath.

      • post_x_it

        Hmm. When I moved to the UK from the Continent 20 years ago, I bought a piece of Emmental cheese in Sainsbury’s. The packaging said, “A milder, sweeter alternative to Cheddar”.
        I remember being greatly offended. While I liked Cheddar too, I didn’t think it should serve as the measure of all cheeses. I bought the Emmental because I liked it in its own right.

      • Callipygian

        Well said, Richard.

  • GraveDave

    David Oyelowo (now a film star) as Henry VI. He was the first black monarch at Stratford. He was so charismatic that it took less than ten seconds to adjust to the idea of a Nigerian-born Plantagenet.

    I do. But that make me a racist? More’s the question – if black audience really needs to see someone that looks like them to enjoy something that was historically all white, what does that make them?

    In any case I’m quite sure Oyelowo wasn’t the first black actor king in that play.

    • Picquet

      Nigeria certainly has more kings than any country in Europe. All of them Johns.

      • sir_graphus

        All of them wanting to shift £1.5m out of the country via my bank account.

    • Richard

      Imagine if Shaka were played by a white actor! The outcry would topple governments, and cause a war.

      • David

        Sounds interesting, I’d pay to see that & the protesting mob as I entered the theatre,cinema.

        • Richard

          Just go to any university and you’ll see your protestors, primed and ready. There, or any Labour Party, Green, or Lib Dem gathering.

          • David

            I’m aware of the political leanings of those you mention, which is why, I suggested being outside the theatre, venue. Hence, i could stick finger in the air, reject their monotone mantras, and not tolerate the intolerant.

      • Callipygian

        Hilarious!

  • Chris de Boer

    well, how about exchanging a wonderfull mezzo like Ewa Podles with a man who cannot sing at all; by the way I volunteer as I cannot read musical notes at all, but the whole world will be at my feet (I pity the whole world . . . . .)

  • Sue Smith

    God, this political correctness spectacle is just soooooo terminally boring.

    • vieuxceps2

      No,Sue, if you ignore PC becauseit’s boring, it will succeed.

      • Sue Smith

        I’m exhausted fighting on behalf of Conservatives and I guess I have to choose my battles. I’m over 60!!

  • wudyermucuss

    Henry VI and Richard III weren’t black.
    Nor was Friar Tuck.
    Why should they be played by black actors?

    • Richard

      Because Lefty politics is more real than nature. You know, a white father has a black son. Didn’t you know that if a Lefty says the world is flat, it’s flat?

  • Nicholas

    Ethnic quotas are quite clearly racist regulations designed to favour particular ethnicities over others.

  • Richard

    I’m waiting for CERN to get its quotas in place. That place is disgustingly white. Maybe Lefties could produce the genius black astronaut neurosurgeons portrayed in their world-views to work there? Isn’t the UK bursting with BME physicists with IQ-scores way off the scale?

    • right1_left1

      We obviously need quotas in the various sections of all symphony orchestras.
      Bo Juggly playing first violin.

      Note that probably the best opera about southern negro life was written by George Gershwin.
      Al Sharpton Jesse Jackson havent been heard to complain.

      Funnily enough Louis Farrakhan can make a good attempt at playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto.
      So good for him I say !
      Were such talents required he could qualify on merit.

      • Richard

        Interesting that you mention “Porgy and Bess”: by Gershwin’s own instructions, the roles in that piece can only be played by blacks. No ifs, ands or buts. No producers or directors have ever questioned it.

        • vieuxceps2

          Ah, but if Gershwin had specified Whites,imagine the anguish among the lefties. Damnable hypocrites.

      • post_x_it

        When David Lammy was slimmer and called himself ‘Minister of State for Culture’, he issued a furious press release saying that all our leading orchestras would have their funding stopped unless they hired more ethnic minority players.
        To which they answered, we’d love to, if only the education system produced any.

    • vieuxceps2

      And what about athleic races? Hardly a white face among ’em.Disgraceful!

      • post_x_it

        Greg Rutherford?
        Jessica Ennis?

        • vieuxceps2

          Ah,but check the faces at the finish-line. We definitely need a quota for white faces there,especially in sprint races…..Damnable racism!

        • Richard

          Ennis is mixed.

          • amicus

            I’d say at least seventy five per cent white, but that’s just going by her appearance. Whatever – she’s a great athlete.

    • Callipygian

      You’d better offer Neil DeGrasse Tyson British citizenship, instanter!

      • Richard

        I’m sure Corbyn will, as well as most of the rest of Africa and its diaspora, as good Labour voters. They’ve certainly done it in the past. Neil DeGrasse Tyson isn’t quite CERN, he is an astronomer, which isn’t exactly the same thing. It’s like saying a GP should perform neurosurgery. My comment still stands, that CERN should have quotas, so should all symphony orchestras, ski and swimming teams, and figure-skating. And why shouldn’t people tried for gun or knife-crimes also be subject to a quota? I mean, if whites are 80% of the population in the UK (50% next year, no doubt), then they should surely be 80% of those imprisoned for these crimes? Anything else is discriminatory against blacks!

  • right1_left1

    No special pleading in favour of role models
    No discrimination in favour of ethnic minorities
    No public sourced subsidies for the arts..

    The theatre is a hobby for the loquacious and the opinionated.
    aka politics for those who by and large talk posh.
    Not a lot more !

    I dont talk much but I do have an opinion on most things.
    should I be subsdised ?

  • Tellytubby

    As long as we don’t have white actors blacking up to play Othello Olivier style, we’re all right.

    People are so insecure about race that they wish to reduce the quality and impact of art and theater now by imposing quotas that break the suspension of disbelief of the audience?

    People need to get a life instead of getting so worked up over nothing.

    • post_x_it

      Good old Othello. The man was a Moor, which means he was of Arab-Berber appearance. Casting a Sub-Saharan (or Caribbean) black actor is no more ‘accurate’ than casting a white one.
      Casting Verdi’s Otello on the opera stage is even trickier because the vocal demands of the role are so extreme that you’ll be lucky finding anyone at all who can sing it to a high standard. You’ll never get as far as worrying about their appearance. Incidentally, some of the best have been Russian.

  • 3x4_34

    Who needs producers and directors who are wimps about PC?

  • Gladiatrix

    Maxine Peake was not a fantastic Hamlet, she received decidedly mixed reviews. As for the upcoming Wars of the Roses, if Nunn really wanted to be historically accurate he would not have cast the British Joely Richardson to play the French Margaret of Anjou.

    • Callipygian

      Maybe, but you can’t tell English from French just by looking at them.

  • LibLabCon Loyalist

    as quotas are the only thing that matters, all drama schools should be closed down, as talent is irrelevant

  • douglas redmayne

    Use of ethnic minorities in portrayal of medieval or Tudor England is race relations industry propaganda. No ethnic quotas should be applied anywhere.

    • Shorne

      You are wrong, in 1596 Elizabeth 1st wrote to to the Lord Mayor of London complaining that ““there are of late divers black- moores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie,” and ordering that they be deported from the country. One week later, she reiterated her “good pleasure to have those kinde of people sent out of the lande” They weren’t deported. Shakespeare being in ‘show business’ would have known black people because they were often musicians. It’s not known if they ever acted, probably not but in three plays Shakespeare gives us well-developed black characters, Aaron in Titus Andronicus, the Prince of Morocco inThe Merchant of Venice, and Othello, all models of breeding, intelligence and savoir-faire, full of promise but increasingly tragic.

      • Callipygian

        Fascinating. Source?

        • Shorne

          Well as my Grandmother used to say ‘What did your last slave die of? You could easily look this up yourself. Still in case you don’t know how,
          http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/early_times/elizabeth.htm

          • I would have thanked you if you hadn’t been so graceless in reply. Lots of people on the Internet make things up — and I and other readers can’t spend all day checking their assertions. Cheers.

          • Shorne

            Oh all right sorry but it only takes about 2 minutes to find this out.

  • David

    Soon as they do the quota BS, i switch off or just refuse to go see it. can’t be bothered with the clap trap and vote with my wallet, as you all should do.

    • Richard

      Seeing black actors in such roles – and speaking approvingly of it – is a tremendous act of virtue signalling in modern Britain. Saying, “I saw Jacobi as King Lear” isn’t nearly as impressive as saying, “I saw *insert African name* as King Lear”.

      Turds for brains, in modern Britain, you see.

      • David

        As it’s generally the so called intelligentsia that patronise such events, with a sprinkling of, as they see it, lower orders. I presume it’s the Intelligentsia you speak of. A group which has never impressed me with their attitude towards the others less privileged. Look at the mess they’ve got us into to date.

  • King Zog

    What about the, er, “trans folk”? Then you could have a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man.

    • Alex Williamson

      We meet their quota during Panto season.

  • King Zog

    But what about the audience? Logically, shouldn’t we also ensure that the audience is suitably diverse?

    • Callipygian

      That will mean that certain viewers will have to stay home, even if there are seats with no bums on them. Really, just like disabled parking spots. (My objection to the latter is that, apart from the fact that there are far too many of them (leading to yet more paving-over, which I had understood the Left was against), what they practically represent is guaranteed parking for those with a disabled permit and less certainty of parking for everyone else. Why those with physical difficulties should have guaranteed parking at the head of a hiking trail or a deep beach is a mystery. If they can get to the water or hike the trail, they can’t be that disabled, can they?!)

  • Gilbert White

    Would a quota of disabled actually be a fire risk?

  • will91

    Stop the planet. I want to get off.

    • Chris de Boer

      Yeah, I wanted that but the answer was: NO, you stay on penal colony called earth for the rest of your life.

  • peter_dtm

    what needs remembering is that ‘positive discrimination’ is exactly what apartheid was.

    So obvioulsy any person proposing ‘positve discrimination’ must be a racist.
    (The minority being discriminated for being the Afrikaners)

    ANY act of ‘postive discrimination’ is an act of negative discrimination against some body else.

    Just call those in favour of ‘positive discrimination’ exactly what they are – a bunch of racist morons (I am quoting the anti apartheid movement…)

  • Alex Williamson

    When I was on holiday in Africa I saw a troop of African tribal dancers and every single one of them was black. I remember being shocked at the time at just how blatantly racist this was.

    • Callipygian

      Nice one! Made me chuckle.

  • MadameDellaporte

    I was in Southbank a few weeks ago and going through the various programmes I saw a disproportionate amount of black/Muslim /Arab/Asian/ Black Caribbean minority shows, events etc. If they are trying to alienate white people, I say they are succeeding. I felt detached and disinterested. Yet, we must have black actors playing the Earl of Gloucester or King Lear not giving a damn if we, the audience have distracting thought in our head like, “This does not seem historically right” or “I bet they are doing it for public opinion/ quotas” and similar.
    A friend of mine told me she went to the theatre and was shocked at the lack of black people in the audience. I shut her up by asking her if she was shocked and disappointed that my white, middle class father did not attend reggae jammin’ nights in Brixton and whether we should raise awareness.

    • Callipygian

      Disinterested or uninterested?

      • MadameDellaporte

        Thank you.

  • Callipygian

    Loved every word of this. You are so right, Robert.

Close