Who can play the king? Representation issues Fuel casting debates.
When three of the world’s most prestigious Shakespeare companies staged “Richard III” this summer, each took a different approach to casting their intriguing lead character in ways that lit up the heated debate over which actors should play which roles.
At the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, Richard was played by actor Arthur Hughes, who suffers from radial dysplasia, which means he has a shorter right arm and a missing thumb. The company said it was the first time it had cast an actor with a disability to play the character, who describes himself in the opening scene as “deformed”. Production manager Gregory Doran, who was until recently the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare, told The Times of London earlier this year that pretending to have disabled actors perform ‘Richard III’ would not be ” probably not acceptable” these days.
The Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, took a different approach: they cast Colm Feore, who is not disabled, to play a Richard who has a deformed spine but is not hunchbacked. And in New York, The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park went in another direction, featuring Danai Gurira, a black woman who doesn’t have a disability, as the Duke who plots and kills to gain the throne of England. .
Their varied approaches have come at a time when an intense reshaping of cultural norms around identity, representation, diversity, opportunity, imagination and artistic license has led to heated debates and to battles over casting.
It’s been decades since major theaters have seen white actors play Othello in blackface and, after years of criticism, performances by white actors playing cartoonish Asian roles are becoming rarer in theater and film, and are reimagined in opera and ballet.
Now there are questions about who should play gay characters (Tom Hanks recently told the New York Times Magazine that today, rightly, he wouldn’t be cast as a gay lawyer dying of AIDS, as he was in his Oscar-winning role in the 1993 film “Philadelphia”) or transgender characters (Eddie Redmayne said last year that it was a “mistake” to play a trans character in 2015’s “The Danish Girl” ) or characters of different ethnicities and religions. (Bradley Cooper came under fire this year for using a prosthetic nose to play Jewish bandleader Leonard Bernstein in an upcoming biopic.)
While many celebrate the abandonment of old, sometimes stereotypical portrayals and the belated new opportunities offered to actors from diverse backgrounds, others worry that the current emphasis on literalism and authenticity is too limiting. Acting, after all, is the art of pretending to be someone you’re not.
“The essential nature of art is freedom,” said Oscar-winning actor F. Murray Abraham, whose many credits include Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” although Mr. Abraham is not not Jewish. “Once we impose any kind of control on it, it’s no longer free.”
And while the recent insistence on more authentic casting promises greater diversity in some ways, it’s less threatening in others — coming as many women and actors of color have more opportunities to play some of the most popular roles. biggest and meatiest in the repertoire, no matter what. race or gender or origin that playwrights may have originally envisioned.
Sometimes such casting is considered “colorblind”, in which case the audience is urged to look beyond an actor’s race or ethnicity, or other characteristics. But in recent years, the trend has been for “color-conscious” casting, in which an actor’s race, ethnicity or identity becomes part of the production and a characteristic of the character being portrayed.
Some of the varied approaches were underscored by this summer’s productions of “Richard III,” and the different directions each theater took when choosing an actor to play Richard.
Richard tells the audience in the opening scene that he is:
Distorted, unfinished, sent before my time
In this breathing world, barely half composed,
And it so lame and old-fashioned
That the dogs bark at me when I stop near them
Royal Shakespeare Company production manager Mr Doran’s remark that it would ‘probably not be acceptable’ these days for actors to pretend to be disabled to play Richard caused a stir in theatrical circles.
Not only is Mr Doran a renowned Shakespearean, but her husband Antony Sher, who died last year, was one of the most memorable Richards of decades, using crutches in an acclaimed 1984 production and writing a book about his portrait.
Mr Doran, whose Stratford-upon-Avon production was critically acclaimed, then clarified his thinking on his casting, explaining that while any actor could be a successful Richard, he believed the role should be reserved for actors with disabilities until they “have the opportunities at all levels now more widely available to other actors.
The new Stratford, Ontario staging, starring Mr. Feore, mentioned a “disability consultant” in its credits. Its depiction was inspired by the discovery of Richard’s bones nearly a decade ago – the skeleton suggested a form of scoliosis – and was based on the idea that his physique “was less medical disability as social and cultural,” company spokeswoman Ann Swerdfager said in an email. Critic Karen Fricker wrote in the Toronto Star, “As much as I admired Feore’s performance, it made me wonder if he will be the last able-bodied actor to star as a disabled character on the Stratford scene, given conversations currently taking place around deaf and disabled performance.
And in New York, Ms. Gurira, who appeared in ‘Black Panther’ and ‘The Walking Dead’ TV series, attempted to explore the underlying reasons for Richard’s behavior. “There is a psychological reason for what he becomes,” she said in an interview. “He looks at the rules in front of him, and he feels most capable, but the rules prevent him from manifesting his full capacity.”
Production manager Robert O’Hara said they made Richard’s difference key to the interpretation. “Richard’s otherness becomes an entire reason for his behavior,” he said in an interview. “He feels like he now has to play a role that people have projected onto him.”
The rest of the cast in the production, which wrapped earlier this month, was particularly diverse and included several actors with disabilities in roles not usually cast that way. Ali Stroker, a Tony-winning actress who uses a wheelchair, played Lady Anne; Monique Holt, who is deaf, played Richard’s mother, with the two usually communicating on stage via American Sign Language.
“I wanted to open the conversation from ‘Why isn’t Richard played by a disabled actor?’ to ‘Why aren’t all roles considered suitable for an actor with a disability?’ said Mr. O’Hara.
Ayanna Thompson, an English professor at Arizona State University and Shakespeare-in-residence scholar at the Public Theater who consulted on her “Richard III,” argued that the growing adoption of color-sensitive casting reflected contemporary understandings of how different attributes shape both actors’ identities and audiences’ perceptions.
“All of our bodies have meaning on stage, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. And that’s going to affect the storytelling,” Ms. Thompson said.
She cited an example from another play: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends of Hamlet, whom other characters often confuse with each other. “If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are played by black actors and the Hamlet family is all-white,” she said, “the inability to distinguish carries a whole set of different meanings.”
Many productions shake up the traditional cast to question the classics. The women have played every role in a trilogy of acclaimed Shakespeare productions directed by Phyllida Lloyd at the Donmar Warehouse in London, seen in New York at St. Ann’s Warehouse. A “Julius Caesar” directed by Mr. Doran replaced the scene from ancient Rome to modern Africa. Even Hollywood has reinvented some blockbusters, like with 2016’s gender-swapped “Ghostbusters.”
But just as there’s a push for more casting freedom in some areas, there’s an argument for more literalism in others, especially from actors from certain backgrounds who lack opportunity.
Some disabled actors are upset when they see Richard III, one of the juiciest disabled characters in canon, go see someone else. “We all want a level playing field where everyone can play against everyone,” said Mat Fraser, a disabled English actor who played Richard, “but my whole career I haven’t been allowed to play almost nobody.”
In 2016, while accepting an Emmy for his turn as a transgender character in “Transparent”, Jeffrey Tambor said he hoped to be “the last cisgender man to play a transgender woman”. Now, with a “Transparent” musical being created in Los Angeles, its creator, Joey Soloway, swore in an interview, “No trans person should be played by a cis person. Zero tolerance.”
The casting conversation has evolved in recent years.
“Once, part of the measure of greatness was your ability to transform yourself,” said Isaac Butler, author of “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act,” a new history of the Method game. . “Is versatility still the hallmark of good acting? And how do you approach it if there are certain lines of identity that you cannot cross? And what are these lines of identity?
Gregg Mozgala, an actor with cerebral palsy, has taken on roles not traditionally portrayed as disabled, such as playing two monarchs in “Richard III” in New York, and sometimes plays characters written as having cerebral palsy, as he will this fall in a Broadway production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Cost of Living.”
“I spent years trying to pretend my disability didn’t exist in life and on stage, which is ridiculous because it does,” Mr Mozgala said.
“Every character I play is going to have cerebral palsy – there’s nothing I can do about it,” he added. “I have to bring all my humanity to every character I play.”
Some still hold out hope for a day when identity will recede in conversation.
“In a hundred years, do I hope white actors can play Othello? said Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theatre. “Of course, because that would mean racism wasn’t the explosive issue it is now.”