As diverse casting has quickly become the norm in US and UK theater, with revolutionary pieces like the mega-hit ‘Hamilton’ setting a new standard, audiences and critics alike are coming to expect this type of consideration across the board. But another school of thought values staunch historical preservation and accuracy in key productions.
Blockbuster director Sir Trevor Nunn is in the midst of a shit storm surrounding the casting of his lastest production of Shakespeare’s The Wars of the Roses. The distillation of four history plays, which opens at the UK’s Rose Theatre in Kingston, next month, starring Joely Richardson and Rufus Hound. His casting has been condemned by the actors’ union Equity and drawn criticism from Arts Council England and diversity campaigners who are angry at what they describe as a “whitewashing” of history. Malcolm Sinclair, the president of UK Equity, said: “Whilst wishing every individual actor in the production well, can it be acceptable best practice in 2015 to cast a project such as this with 22 actors but not one actor of colour or who apparently identifies themselves as having a disability?”
And in a statement, UK Equity’s minority ethnic members committee said: “To present this benchmark of British heritage in a way that effectively locks minorities out of the cultural picture (literally) flies in the face of the huge conversation taking place in British at present, of the very real progress made in recent years to increase diversity in our industry.”
Nunn responded to the outcry, telling The Independent on Sunday he was a longstanding member of the movement to “cast, whenever possible, according to the principle of diversity”, but in this case of The War of The Roses he had made an “artistic decision” to cast according to “historical verisimilitude”.
He added: “The connections between the characters, and hence the narrative of the plays, are extremely complex, and so 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.”
A spokesperson for the Rose Theatre, said: “A creative decision was taken by the director that a naturalistic historical approach in casting was required.”
Critics have questioned the “verisimilitude” of the production, which combines Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy and Richard III and happens to be sponsored by Norway’s largest financial services group, DNB. Norwegian actor Kare Conradi was cast as Edward IV, and two British actresses, Drama Desk Award winner Joely Richardson (The Belle of Amherst) and Imogen Daines, play Margaret of Anjou and Joan of Arc.
Simon Mellor, executive director of Arts Council England commented: “This production seems out of step with most of British theatre where casting that ignores an actor’s race is increasingly the norm.” Adding, “Whilst we do not fund the Rose Theatre, we expect organisations we fund to actively ensure their programme, and the artists that create it, reflect the people of contemporary England.”
Danny Lee Wynter, founder of UK’s Act For Change, said: “The Wars of the Roses caused us concerns, particularly the justification of historical accuracy which displayed a lack of awareness of the debate … It’s very hard in this day and age to have a company that size which is all white.” … “They have not been ‘historically accurate’ in having a Norwegian actor in the company. Trevor Nunn, the Rose Theatre Kingston, and Ginny Schiller who cast this production have placed themselves in a tremendously unfavourable corner … worryingly, some will take the Rose Theatre’s whitewashing of history as gospel.”
Ms Schiller, the production’s casting director, told The Independent on Sunday: “On this occasion Trevor Nunn – a director with a proven commitment to diverse casting – decided that because of the complex family tree and conflicting claims to the throne through direct lineage to Edward III, a naturalistic ‘colour aware’ approach was required.” She added: “All the supporting actors will play many parts, and at some point in the trilogy take on roles who are related to the Houses of York and Lancaster by blood. This is why even those roles with no genealogical link to the families were also cast white.”
In a statement last night, Nunn said: “Having been involved since the early 1970s in the movement to cast, wherever possible, according to the principle of diversity, I am, of course, saddened to discover that Equity has criticised the casting for my current project.” He added: “I took the artistic decision that a trilogy of Shakespeare’s early history plays, telling in documentary detail the story of the English monarchy and English nobility in the second half of the 15th century, should be presented with, as far as possible, historical verisimilitude.”
Diversity is one of the biggest challenges facing the arts today, says UK Equity, and the union recently issued its first ever policy on ‘inclusive casting’ to tackle what is calls “discrimination across the industry.” This new policy calls for reform to now require casting those from diverse backgrounds, regardless of sex, disability, race or sexuality, along with equality monitoring of performers, stage management and creative teams.
Julia Horan, a member of the Casting Directors Guild of Great Britain, commented: “I think that everybody in the industry supports the idea of inclusive casting and it is part of a constant conversation about who we should cast which is taking place in theatres across Britain.” She went on to say: “There’s a wider issue of a lack of diversity which extends beyond casting to the entire industry itself. Diversity only moves forward when the people doing the picking are diverse and if there’s no diversity in that then there will never be any true diversity in terms of who’s on stage.”