The Guardian view on colour-conscious casting: mixing it up can be a good thing | Editorial


“Images are political,” said the actor David Oyelowo, explaining why he avoids roles that perpetuate racial stereotypes. Mr Oyelowo is one of the stars of the BBC’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, which concludes this Sunday. His character, Javert, is a police chief and austere legalist. In real life, in early 19th-century France, such a person would not have been black. Mr Oyelowo’s casting is down to the BBC’s decision to cast its latest period drama in a non-literal way. Such casting is often called “colour-blind”, but the truth is more complicated. Rather than choosing to ignore skin colour, or other physical markers of ethnicity, the producers of such dramas – like those who cast women in roles traditionally reserved for men – are more often making a deliberate choice to ditch the naturalism that underlies most casting decisions.

Last week’s announcement by the Royal Shakespeare Company that it has cast disabled actors in three upcoming productions is another move towards a more equal distribution of opportunities; this week, English National Opera also said that it will actively seek to recruit more black, Asian and minority ethnic choristers, and support young directors of colour. Television- and film-makers have been much slower than theatres to pick up on what the RSC’s Erica Whyman calls “colour-conscious” casting, which is why the BBC’s Les Misérables, and the film Mary Queen of Scots – in which the black actor Adrian Lester plays a 16th-century ambassador – are breaking new ground. Reasons for the time lag include the lack of diversity among commissioners, and the financial risks associated with cinema (a view rebutted by the success of Black Panther). But the paucity of roles for people of colour and women in so much classical drama, combined with pressure from campaigners, arguably forced publicly funded theatres to combat the discrimination that follows from naturalistic casting.

It is more than two decades since the African-American playwright August Wilson attacked colour-blind casting on the grounds that what black people need is not the chance to play white people but the chance to tell their own stories. While the current shake-up of casting in the UK is welcome, it should amplify, rather than replace, demands for a sector that is more representative overall, including of different social classes. It is shocking that the current production of Nine Night by Natasha Gordon can be hailed as the first West End play by a black British female playwright.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all. In some cases, particularly when race or some other aspect of identity is an important part of a story, naturalistic casting is an artistic choice. The BBC’s West Indian slavery epic The Long Song is a recent example, and it’s important to recognise that historical drama has a duty to history as well as drama (which is not to say that it must be realistic). Meanwhile, some campaigners object to the casting of straight or non-disabled actors in gay or disabled roles. At least where marginalised groups are concerned, they believe in like-for-like casting.

It goes without saying that diverse organisations will be better equipped to make creative decisions in this shifting territory. If public funds are going to be used to put on Shakespeare’s plays, or dramatise 19th-century European novels on TV, it is only fair that a range of actors gets the chance to be in them. As our understanding of identity and inequality becomes more complex, it is stimulating to see the dynamics of human relationships explored in different ways. Drama should open the minds of audiences, as well as opportunities for actors.


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