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It’s a good time for non-white actors, but offstage it’s a different story

Critic’s Notes by Mark Lawson.

The undercarriage of a jumbo jet looms from the posters for the National Theatre’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which is fitting because the show marks a significant stop on a long haul: this is the first NT play to have an all-Asian cast. There are 26 actors in David Hare’s adaptation of Katherine Boo’s book about the slum that grew up alongside the fences of the airport and luxury hotels of Mumbai.

This production should insure the National Theatre against the sort of complaints frequently directed at the BBC and ITV drama departments over the shortage of opportunities for non-white actors. Also immune to such accusations are the musical The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick in the West End of London, where all but two of the 13-strong cast are black, as are half the performers in Wildefire, the Roy Williams police drama showing at the Hampstead Theatre.

Directed by Rufus Norris (who takes over as artistic director at the NT in April next year), Behind the Beautiful Forevers conjures a succession of stunning stage pictures: the audience is sent off to interval drinks as a plane thunders in to the airport just as the monsoon begins during a funeral procession in the slum. Hare has mined from the stories collected by the New Yorker journalist Boo a narrative of Indian-Dickensian eccentrics who become embroiled in Jarndyce and Jarndyce-like legal cases while the financial crash briefly narrows the gap between India’s rich and poor.

The Scottsboro Boys – one of the last musicals that the Cabaret and Chicago writers John Kander and Fred Ebb worked on before the latter’s death – daringly uses the form of a minstrel show to dramatise a racist scandal: the true story of nine young African Americans falsely accused of rape and sentenced to death in 1931. The form is finally more original than the content of the songs, but Kander and Ebb (together with the dramatist David Thompson) make another case for the musical as a place for the treatment of serious themes.

And even though Wildefire fails to match the revelatory reportage and scalding dialogue of other Williams plays such as Fallout and Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads – and although the corruptibility of police officers is a common subject for TV cop shows – this play is also viscerally staged, especially in a sequence featuring a botched raid.

But while the casting opportunities that these shows offer must delight Equity’s equality division, another aspect of their personnel may cause muttering. Of the six writers who provided some kind of material for Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The Scottsboro Boys and Wildefire, all except Williams are white, as are the directors in all three cases.

Should this matter? There is a view – especially in the academies – that writers have neither the right nor the insight to describe the experience of another race. Williams has ignored this, often writing white characters, such as the two main roles in Wildefire, although he has admitted in interviews that theatres are often disappointed if he turns in scripts that have white characters or lack racism as a theme, possibly because they bank on him to beef up the diversity part of their Arts Council grant application.

And, if Williams can write white, why shouldn’t Hare (through Boo) create Asian characters? It’s true that dramatists such as Hanif Kureishi and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti (Bezhti, Khandan) might have tackled the religious divisions between Muslims and Hindus in Behind the Beautiful Forevers less liberally and gingerly, but they could also have been accused, in a way that Sir David can’t, of having cultural links closer to one side than the other.

Even so, I wonder if non-white writers and directors may look at these commen­dably multiracial casts and feel that we’re only halfway there.

Swan Lake in a stairwell

Installations incorporating sounds and pictures dominate “Mirror­city”, a show at the Hayward Gallery in London that reflects the impact of digital technology on modern culture. But, for me, an older-fashioned performance art piece was the standout (or, strictly, stand-up and fall-down) work.Do-Re-Me, by the London-based artist Nicola Conibere, begins on the ground floor. The visitor walks past two black-clad figures under a dark sheet. They stand, back to back – then twist and fall in improbable conjoinments. Later, separated, they suddenly appear beside you, like the brought-to-life shop dummies in Doctor Who.

This can’t be called digital art, except in the strength and dexterity that the performers require to the tips of their fingers and toes – but it is thrilling and sinister. Because the physical strain on the pair must be roughly equivalent to dancing the whole of Swan Lake in a stairwell, they perform in only three-hour bursts, but it is worth employing digital knowhow (on the Hayward website) to catch this astonishing piece of indoor street theatre. 

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” runs until 13 April 2015 at the Olivier, London SE1

“Mirrorcity” is at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1, until 4 January 2015

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents