Tuesday, 14 March 2017

The multi-racial casting of The Cherry Orchard at the Arcola Theatre

A Nigerian plays a Russian kulak

The rights and wrongs of multi-racial casting were debated with a person, admittedly in nationalism, who refused to see it on principle because he couldn't bear the idea of a Nigerian playing a Russian kulak. 

I reminded him Sophie Okonedo played Queen Margaret magnificently in The Hollow Crown, but he disagreed.

How would I feel about Peking opera being performed by black people or Zulu dancing being performed by Chinese people in grass skirts?

I suppose the novelty would attract me initially, but these performers would have to be truly excellent or the novelty soon wear off into irritation and disappointment.

It is just possible that black people would get cross at Chinese people Zulu dancing and Chinese people get cross at black people doing Peking Opera however good the performers are and feel culturally violated, leading to accusations of cultural appropriation and racism.

When black people (Michael Jackson's family) were offended by a white man (Joseph Fiennes) playing a black man, Sky promptly pulled the series. Obviously, Sky felt that black people's feelings are more important white people's feelings. But isn't this in fact racist?

Even over paella people possessory nationalistic feelings can spill over into death threats, apparently.

I was curious as to how a black man would play this role and even wondered myself how I would play this role myself. A summer course at a drama school has not exactly rendered me stage- struck, but it certainly sharpened my interest in acting and the staging of it, so I attended out of quasi professional interest, as well as a desire to see Chekov again.

Imagine if I had gone to drama school and done well enough to play Shakespeare properly. Imagine if I could do all the regional accents of Britain and wanted to play white working class women to showcase my versatility and my understanding and knowledge of white working class life. It would just be too terrible if I were deprived of this opportunity on racial grounds, or just given roles of Chinese women with Chinese accents running Chinese takeaways or selling DVDs. That really would be too terrible for words. Besides, Ali G was so believable as a black man played by a Jew that celebrities were taken in by him. Indeed, even now I find it hard to believe that Ali G is not really black.

And so I attended a performance, perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief, curious to see what Jude Akuwudike would make of this role. I would have played played him like a barrow boy or as Del Boy, but it seems he played Lopakhin like Hamlet while only fitfully dropping his aitches and putting in the occasional glottal stop when he remembered his place in the play, so to speak. It was the only way an actor not of the expected race of a kulak could have done to convince the audience, and this was not done. Shame. I wonder if Akuwidike drinks Carlsberg and whether that would have helped.

Madame Ranevsky was played by Sian Thomas who enunciated her words with actressy precision and was obviously too lean and hungry to play the part convincingly.

Firs the 87 year old retainer was played with far too much energy by Robin Hooper whose hair was not quite as white as Jack Klaff's who managed to convey how irritating and frivolous Madame Ranevsky's garrulous brother must have been.

Anya the ingenue was played by Pernille Broch chosen for her obvious youth. Her accent is Swedish.

Abhin Galeya who played Trofinov looked the part as an angry young revolutionary.

Pischick the much-borrowing neighbour, played by Jim Bywater, came across convincingly though his narcolepsy was not that convincing.

Barış Celiloğlu who played Charlotte, the governess who did not know know how old she was because she had no papers and didn't know if her circus performing parents who died in her childhood were ever married conveyed the necessary pathos of a rootless person unsure even of her own identity and origins. 

Simon Scardifield as the clumsy Yepikhodov managed to have his accidents without them seeming too staged.

Ryan Wichert played well the heartless, self-seeking Yasha prepared to do anything to leave the stupidity of the Russian countryside, including sexually pleasure his mistress if only she would take him to Paris again.  It was he who caused  Firs to be locked in the house, alone, after they all departed forever, because in his view Firs was ready for the knackers' yard. 

Last but certainly not least was Jade Williams who movingly played Varya. Her sudden flirtatiousness towards Lopakhin was a surprise, and her devastation when he eagerly welcomed the interruption that prevented his proposal sharply conveyed.

I do not say a multi-racial cast not of the race of the characters cannot be enjoyable, merely that the actors have more of an uphill task than actors of the expected race. 

Are other races not more jealous of the rights of their actors' rights to play roles only people of a certain race are supposed to play?

This is a matter for English people to decide, I suppose, assuming being English is still a distinct and distinctive ethnic identity rather than a merely cultural one.

These are the matters that exercise the racially conscious and anxious who continually ask themselves "If anyone can just come to our country, call themselves English and then take over our roles, our culture and our race, what are we, then, the white indigenous English?"

I think it is a fair enough question, which I imagine no liberal wishes to answer. They will probably call you racist for daring to ask this question. 

No comments: