Thursday, 13 March 2014

Does a black face fit?

Years ago I saw a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II with Fiona Shaw – a woman – in the title role.

It worked superbly. One of the contrasts in the play is between the effeminate Richard and his much more macho cousin, Henry, who would eventually usurp his throne. Feminine playing effeminate? A stroke of genius.

But if a woman can play a male role, then why can’t a black actor play a ‘white’ role? After all, take a character like Hamlet. The original was probably white, but it’s extremely unlikely that he spoke English. Let alone in iambic pentameters.

If an Englishman can play the Prince of Denmark, why does he have to be white?

It seems, though, that we’re a long way from its being broadly accepted that non-whites can play the great parts in the Shakespeare canon. So it was fascinating last Saturday to go and see Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet, starring one of our finest English actors, Adrian Lester, who happens to be Chakrabarti’s husband. And also black. 

Actor and writer.
The play is based on the life story of Ira Aldridge, the only black American to appear among the 33 actors who have brass plaques to their memory in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

He was born in 1807, New York and free, but nearly half a century before slavery would be abolished in the US by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. He began to act in New York but soon hit a brick wall; he travelled to England at the age of 17 to try his luck on our stages.

He did well on the provinces stages, even winning the acclaim of the outstanding Shakespearean actor of his age, Edmund Kean, for his portrayal of Othello. Which has a certain irony, Othello being a ‘Moor’ and therefore non-white himself. Though it’s far more ironic that Aldridge got his break on the London stage when Kean fell sick and Aldridge was called in to replace him – as Othello.

This is the central part of the action of Chakrabarti’s play. Because London received Aldridge’s performance badly. It was felt that using a black to play a Moor was, somehow, inappropriate. “An African is no more qualified to personate Othello than a huge fat man would be competent to represent Falstaff,” opined one of the reviews quoted in Red Velvet, “... English audiences have a prejudice in favour of European features, which more than counterbalance the recommendations of a flat nose and thick lips.”

Ira Aldridge playing Othello
Curious that the review correctly identifies the opinion as a prejudice but seems to feel that this somehow justifies it.

Aldridge was taken up on the Continent, and played to great success in Austria, Prussia and Russia. Indeed, he died in Lodz, today Poland, but at that time a Russian possession, where Chakrabarti shows him preparing to play Lear.

He had a successful career, and became probably one of the wealthiest free Blacks in Europe or America in his times. But one ambition eluded him: to play Shakespeare to acclaim in London and New York. And he’s faded into undeserved obscurity since, that plaque in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre notwithstanding.

We’ve moved on since his day. But how far? Are black actors through that particular glass ceiling yet?

That’s the question that Chakrabarti so skilfully leaves us asking, in a challenging and compelling play.


Anonymous said...

One of the most ludicrous things I've seen on the English stage was Olivier playing Othello. But I remember the critics loving it…


Anonymous said...

Criticising Olivier playing Othello might look like the same thing as criticising a black man playing a white character, but I believe there are valid differences. White actors need their faces blacked up, their hair frizzled etc... More importantly, the reason was that blacks were not thought good enough to even appear on the stage. When I spoke to a famous agent once about my African play, she asked me why I had chosen an “Afrcan play”, as, and I quote, “Black actors have no idea how to act!” SAN

David Beeson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Beeson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Beeson said...

Hi San

My problem with Olivier was that I never rated him as a Shakespearean actor. That might have been a generational thing: people of my parents' generation thought he was wonderful, but I found him hammy and wooden. Funnily enough, I thought he was much better in some modern pieces I saw: he was good in a TV performance I watched of 'Daphne Laureola' and I thought he was great in 'Come back, little Sheba', but I'd pick Branagh over him for Henry V any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

I'd be delighted to see Adrian Lester do Henry V, by the way, or even Lenny Henry (though I didn't see Henry's previous Shakespeares - I just wish I had).

The idea that a black actor is 'less good' is simply shameful racism. We have more than enough outstanding black actors to prove it: as well as the ones I've mentioned there are Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and I'm only naming the ones who spring to mind.

I don't think a white actor needs to black up to play Othello, as it happens, though of course he could if he felt like it. The fascinating thing in 'Red Velvet', and I didn't want to mention it to avoid spoilers – so ***SPOILER ALERT*** – is that at the end of the play Adrian Lester 'whites up' to play Lear (he does it a dressing table on stage: you see the entire process), and it's very effective: a black actor sits down and starts applying the makeup, a white actor stands up. It really makes the point...

But I'd be happy to see Lester do 'King Lear' without 'whiting up'.

All the best