Adrian Lester and Natasha Parry in a 2000 production of Hamlet. Photo: Getty
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We need more racial diversity on the stage both sides of the pond

British theatre is part of an industry that produces highly skilled practitioners but doesn’t always know how to use them. Except stereotypically.

In 1825 the African-American actor Ira Aldridge came to London in The Slave’s Revenge. Before abolition, he had no hopes of working on the stage at home, but he became one of the most popular Shakespearean performers in Europe and was honoured by monarchs. A century later, Paul Robeson played Othello in London because racism made it impossible in the USA. He stayed and starred in six British films.

Now we’re facing an ironic reversal. There’s been much coverage of how black British actors are triumphing on US screens, and not on those in the UK. But the opportunities in theatre also don’t exist here. I have been investigating the history and the current state of play for British black and Asian theatre artists and producers. They tell me that local audiences – white, black, Asian – have become less open to productions that don’t reflect “their” communities. I’ve heard that fewer roles are being auditioned colour-blind, and young and established actors alike have said to me, in frustration, “I’m going to have to try America”.

How did this happen?

The actor Don Warrington has said that white actors’ careers run on “tramlines” partly shaped by the classical repertoire, whereas black actors’ employment is “stop-go”. Many are shunted into the sidings of Casualty, Holby City and countless police procedurals. In 2010, an unprecedented Guardian editorial complained that David Harewood – the National Theatre’s first black Othello, 13 years previously – was being given too few stage opportunities. Showtime promptly cast him as the CIA chief in Homeland.

Last year several African-American plays and musical dramas were staged in London, including August Wilson’s Fences with Lenny Henry. Optimism grew. But as Fences’ director Paulette Randall said, “It’s history repeating itself”.

Back in 1986, Yvonne Brewster founded Talawa, Britain’s foremost black-led theatre company. She fostered brilliant black playwrights and performers and laid claim to King Lear and Oscar Wilde. Meanwhile the actress Josette Simon was working her way up through the RSC’s ranks – from playing a desert-island sprite, a witch, and Cleopatra’s handmaid – to lead the company in 1987. Then she played Maggie – Marilyn Monroe – in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall at the National. The dramatist Bonnie Greer said she moved to London from Chicago because of the achievements of Simon’s generation.

British theatre is both art and part of an industry topped by film and television that produces highly skilled practitioners but doesn’t always know how to use them. Except stereotypically.

Multi-ethnic talent – especially policy-making talent – is essential off-stage as well as on. After a 2002 report revealed that 96 per cent of British theatre staff were white, the Arts Council launched a decade-long series of Race Equality schemes that called on all companies to draw up positive programmes. Some called this “Stalinist” but experience shows that in a “stop-go” climate isolated advances are often followed by complacency and reversals. Under the Conservative-led Government there have been disproportionately large “austerity” cuts to multicultural companies.

But committed practitioners will work with the tools available. Three leading black actors, Adrian Lester, Paterson Joseph and David Harewood, have all made TV documentaries working on Shakespeare with urban teenagers. In financially straightened times, Talawa’s current director Michael Buffong is working strategically alongside the mainstream system in the regions, with co-productions of Waiting for Godot and Miller’s All My Sons (with Don Warrington).

What is needed are artists prepared to ask inconvenient questions, which of course is traditionally the role of the writer. The American playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has worked with and shaken up the RSC, directing Dharmesh Patel as Hamlet in a version for children: “If you’re from a minority and in the first show you see, everyone is white, a pattern builds.”

In the other direction, the Casualty actor Kwame Kwei-Armah took on the mission of dramatising a breadth of British black experiences, from street crime to the much less familiar world of politics and think-tanks. He inspired the National Theatre to create a vital database of black plays. He’s now artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage Theatre.

And how radically different is American theatre really?

Despite all the advances in positive discrimination from the 1960s onwards, last month Theatre for a New Audience in New York called a round-table to confront the barriers non-white performers still face. For instance, it emerged that no Romeo or Hamlet of colour has been cast by a mainstream American theatre for 35 years.

On the other hand, the very next day, the new Harlem Shakespeare Festival – created by the inspirational performer Debra Ann Byrd – commemorated the Shakespearean achievements of Aldridge, Robeson and Henrietta Vinton Davies (actress and activist: 1860-1941). The past can remind the present of what’s possible.

On 25 March, Adrian Lester and a London cast will remind New Yorkers of Ira Aldridge’s bitter struggles and astonishing victories when Lolita Chakrabarti’s acclaimed play Red Velvet transfers to the St Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Protest and celebration, British and American, must work together – because the Atlantic’s not just a lure, it’s a link.

The ConversationTony Howard receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). He is affiliated with the British Black and Asian Shakespeare project.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tony Howard is Professor of English at the University of Warwick.

GRANGER HISTORICAL PICTURE ARCHIVE
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The stuff of life: how A S Byatt intertwined the lives of William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

In Peacock & Vine, Byatt has turned works of art and their shade, texture, patina and heft into words.

How to evoke a colour in words? It is a task of daunting simplicity which A S Byatt attempts in her essay on the artist-designers William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. A Fortuny dress in pleated silk embellished with gold pomegranates is, she writes, “a colour somewhere between dark pink and pale red . . . a shining rose crossed with rust”. She adds, “no one reading what I have written will imagine the colour very well, or at all”. An adjacent photograph of the dress shows that “rose crossed with rust” is a fine description of its luscious and evasive colour – though it is also true that the words will conjure a slightly different tone in the mind of every reader, and none of those imagined russets will be exactly that of the dress.

Still, if anyone can turn words into shade, texture, patina, heft, it is Byatt. Her fictions swarm with physical objects of intense emotional potency and with characters whose lives they touch in strange and unexpected ways. Byatt herself, she writes in her introduction, has “always admired those whose lives and arts are indistinguishable from each other. And as I grow older I become more and more interested in craftsmen – glass-blowers, potters, makers of textiles.” Her own ancestors, she remarks, were Staffordshire potters.

On a first visit to the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Byatt found herself unexpectedly thinking about William Morris, whose work she knew well. “I was using Morris . . . to understand Fortuny. I was using Fortuny to reimagine Morris. Aquamarine, gold green. English meadows, Venetian canals.”

The two men were born four decades apart: Morris in 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, to “a family with no aesthetic interests”, Fortuny in Granada in 1871, to an aristocratic family of artists and collectors. Each led a life of intense, multifarious ­creativity in surroundings where no distinction was made between domesticity and professional work. Morris designed houses, gardens, furniture, stained glass, tapestries, textiles, wallpaper, books and typefaces. Fortuny was a painter, photographer, theatre designer and inventor whose innovations included a system of electrical stage lighting that revolutionised the staging of Wagner’s operas.

Both he and Morris came late to textile design, but it is perhaps for this that each is now best known. In 1907, after reading a book by the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who excavated the Minoan palace at Knossos, Fortuny designed his first purely fashion creation, the Knossos scarf, incorporating Minoan imagery. In 1909 he patented his Delphos design for a pleated sheath dress in the Grecian style. The dresses were made of fine silk, dyed with vegetable dyes, hand-pleated using a technique that remains a mystery and held together with Murano glass beads. They turned the female body, of any size or shape, into a graceful column, and they were both elegant and extremely comfortable – though not, Byatt thinks, “sexy, either in 1910 or now”.

Fortuny saw his creations as works of art, and they were worn by women of highly evolved aesthetic sensibility: the dancer Isadora Duncan, the art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Byatt notes that Kay, the protagonist of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, was buried in a Fortuny dress. She was not the only fictional character to wear Fortuny: his designs are a potent presence in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Of all the dresses owned by the narrator’s lover, Albertine, a Fortuny in blue and gold, lined in Tiepolo pink, is her favourite; when she leaves him, she takes with her only a dark blue Fortuny cloak.

In his lifetime, Morris was almost better known for his writing than for his designs. His literary output was as prodigious as his craft: a book about his journeys to Iceland; News from Nowhere, a pastoral utopian fantasy; translations of Icelandic epics and of a 16th-century Venetian book on the art of dyeing; an epic poem, “The Earthly Paradise” (vastly popular in his lifetime, but now almost unreadable, Byatt says: “The rhythms hack and bang”); as well as books and essays on art and design.

Pattern, Morris wrote in his 1881 lecture “Some Hints on Pattern Designing”, must possess “beauty, imagination and order”. It is here, in the tension between imagination and order, that Byatt finds the connections between her heroes that illuminate the work of each. In chapters on motifs that both men loved – pomegranates and birds – she explores the multitudinous ways in which they used them; the exhilarating collisions of naturalism and abstraction, the audacious juxtapositions of simplicity and complexity.

In considering this, she considers, too, the acts of making and looking. Both of her subjects, she says, were “obsessive workers, endlessly inventive, endlessly rigorous, endlessly beautiful”. They acknowledged no separation between art and labour, but made their lives and their work a seamless continuum; and, through the beauty they created, invited us to do the same.

“It is always surprising,” Byatt writes, “how people don’t really look at things.” But she does, and in this brilliant and tenderly observant little book, with its elegant Gill typeface and handsome colour illustrations, she celebrates the fruits of making and looking: “the endlessness of what is there to be imagined and shaped”. 

Peacock & Vine by A S Byatt is published by Chatto & Windus, 183pp, £14.99

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt