restricted access The Shakespearean Glass Ceiling: the State of Colorblind Casting in Contemporary British Theatre
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The Shakespearean Glass Ceiling:
the State of Colorblind Casting in Contemporary British Theatre

This article examines Shakespearean colourblind casting from a variety of angles, interrogating the 'glass ceiling' that remains prevalent in contemporary British theatre. By offering a brief survey of early examples of the practice of colourblind casting in Shakespearean roles, it seeks to establish casting patterns in the ensuing decades: typically, patterns of very few black, Asian or mixed-race actors and even fewer playing lead roles, instead being cast as members of warring factions or as supernumeraries. This analysis is informed by an attempt to quantify available data that includes major companies and regional theatres, examining 225 productions over a time span of 30 years. Research is drawn from archival materials held at the RSC and National Theatres, as well as local production companies, offering an insight into the ratios of white to ethnic minority actors in productions, the types of roles and the casting of understudy parts within contemporary Shakespearean theatre. The article also considers the perpetually contentious nature of the practice of colourblind casting through the lens of the socio-political events (such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence) that have coincided with specific moments in British theatre history. In doing so, it seeks to challenge commonly-held assumptions regarding the 'inclusive' state of contemporary productions of Shakespeare's plays, instead revealing their perpetuation of the dominant stereotype of Shakespeare as the preserve of the white cultural elite, as well as their assimilation of the practices of the wider entertainment industry, in which non-white actors are significantly underrepresented.


Race, Racism, Colourblind casting, Shakespeare, Contemporary theatre, RSC, National Theatre, Nationhood, Multiculturalism, Post-colonialism

He dips his sponge into the pot and starts to white up his face.”

Lolita Chakrabarti, stage direction, Red Velvet

“It’s also a relief to hear that next year’s BBC Shakespeare season, under the control of director Sam Mendes, will feature colorblind casting—now standard in the theatre.”

Mark Lawson, Guardian (G2) 29 Dec. 2011

Two images from British theatre in 2012 are brought to the forefront by the epigraphs above, which provide a frame for this article. The first comes from the final moments of Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet at London’s Tricycle Theatre in the autumn of 2012, which contained an astonishing act of assimilation. In his dressing room in Poland in 1867, the African-American classical actor Ira Aldridge (played by Adrian Lester, who made his name in the early 1990s as Rosalind in Cheek By Jowl’s all-male As You Like It) opened a pot of make-up and sat at his dressing table applying a layer of whiteface. The dying Aldridge then placed a white wig over his black hair, securing it with a crown. The actor’s transformation into a white King Lear was completed with a maroon brocade cloak and crown and—hiding the last bit of black skin—a pair of matching gloves (the script calls for white gloves, making the transformation from black to white more explicit than Tom Piper’s design). This image of Aldridge whiting-up in Red Velvet inferred a direct link between the racism Aldridge encountered in his major London appearance in 1833 and his subsequent use of whiteface. If playing Shakespeare in his natural skin color were unacceptable to audiences, then Aldridge would assimilate and perform Shakespeare’s roles as a “white” man. Although [End Page 405] Chakrabarti’s (and Lester’s) depiction of Ira Aldridge reminded audiences of the effects of racial prejudice on the African-American actor, my second image illustrates the advances that have occurred in Shakespearean theatre in the intervening 150 years: that of Gregory Doran’s all-black production of Julius Caesar at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Also from the summer of 2012, Doran’s Caesar provides a useful juxtaposition with the image of a black man forced to “white-up” to play Shakespeare’s roles. With an entirely black cast, this Caesar was a high-profile assertion that—as Lawson states above—companies were providing opportunities in the theatre for black and Asian actors, even as television continues to deny them. The epigraph...