A dramatic new front in the culture wars
Deutsches Theatre's production of 'West Side Story' (Photo by Joerg Koch / Getty)   

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At the beginning of this month, Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail got himself into a whole world of pain. He’s the paper’s theatre critic and had been to see The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, a Restoration comedy by Mary Pix.

In his review of the revival (staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-Upon-Avon), Letts did an unforgivable thing. He questioned a casting choice. Specifically, he questioned whether one of the roles which Letts claimed was miscast was given to the actor in question “because he is black?” He went on, “If so, the RSC’s clunking approach to politically correct casting has again weakened its stage product.”

The RSC’s artistic director, Gregory Doran, and its executive director, Catherine Mallyon, issued a joint-statement in response to Lett’s review, claiming that the reviewer “seems to demonstrate a blatantly racist attitude to a member of the cast”. They continued: “We are very proud to be working with every member of the company, each of whom has been asked to join us in Stratford because we value and recognise their unique skills and talents.”

Whereupon various actors and bystanders also piled in on Twitter to denounce Letts and demand that he be barred from attending theatres in future. Even though Letts had nowhere in his review said that a black actor should not appear in a Restoration comedy.

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This is worth revisiting because, only weeks after this furore, that very same month, the BBC broke the news that Sierra Boggess had withdrawn from a performance at the Proms this summer.

The Broadway star had been due to appear in a concert performance of West Side Story. But when the programme was announced, there was some denunciation on social media about Boggess (who is reportedly Caucasian) playing the role of Maria (a fictional character who is Puerto Rican). One Twitter user wrote: “You are a Caucasian woman and this character is Puerto Rican. It’s not like you’re hurting for job opportunities. Stop taking roles from actors of colour.’”

Another posted: “I love Sierra Boggess but Maria is seriously one of the only leading roles for Latina women in musical theatre so can we please cast one of the many talented Latina women out there who would KILL to play this role.”

Unfortunately Boggess took these criticisms to heart and announced on Facebook:

“After much reflection, I’ve realised that if I were to do this concert, it would once again deny Latinas the opportunity to sing this score, as well as deny the IMPORTANCE of seeing themselves represented onstage.”

She said this would be a “huge mistake”.

“Since the announcement of this concert, I have had many conversations about why this is a crucial time, now more than ever, to not perpetuate the miscasting of this show.

“I apologise for not coming to this realisation sooner and as an artist, I must ask myself how I can best serve the world, and in this case my choice is clearer than ever: to step aside and allow an opportunity to correct a wrong that has been done for years with this show in particular.

“I have therefore withdrawn myself from this concert and I look forward to continuing to be a voice for change in our community and our world!”

If only Boggess could have realised that in bending to this most militant public view, she is complicit in something which is deeply regressive.

In recent decades, it has become completely normal and perfectly acceptable for people of any race at all to play any part at all in the theatre or film. Adrian Lester happens to be black, but it is now 16 years since the RSC cast him as Henry V. Theatre audiences flocked to the production as they would to any good production and great performance. Since then, black actors have become so visible, even in period pieces, that their inclusion is rarely even noted. Perhaps, in part, for fear of provoking precisely the sort of attack that Letts was subject to.

It has been the same for decades in the world of music. Back in the 1970s the great American soprano Kathleen Battle was appearing in works by Strauss, Verdi and Haydn. None of the roles had been written for a black soprano, but there was no significant question of her suitability because all they demanded were performances of the highest calibre, which Battle gave.

Likewise Jessye Norman – one of the great sopranos of recent decades. Richard Wagner had not necessarily envisaged his Isolde as black, yet when Norman sang the music from Tristan and Isolde under the baton of Herbert von Karajan with the Vienna Philharmonic, nobody thought of ignoring the music and denouncing the casting for being insufficiently racially pure. Indeed, it might have been thought a lapse of taste to advance such an argument.

But that was then. Today, it has become wholly acceptable to suggest that the racial characteristics of an actor or performer are the most important characteristic when they are cast. More important, indeed, than their ability at performing the role.

Casting can either be colour-blind or colour-obsessed. It cannot be both.

Race wars now break out on a regular basis in entertainment as everywhere else. Earlier this year, when Netflix released its almost wholly indecipherable sci-fi series Altered Carbon, the casting of Joel Kinnaman in the lead role was condemned. According to Time magazine the show was “far from progressive” and “retrograde” because the Swedish actor had been cast.

Without getting too bogged down by the tedious central conceit of the series, Kinnaman plays an Asian man (called Takeshi) who has been killed and is then reborn in another body (or “sleeve”). According to Time (which seemed to forget that the whole thing is sci-fi) it was wrong to cast a “white guy” as the successor body of “an Asian man”. It was deemed “especially problematic”.

To which one wants to reply: “Maybe they cast him because he is a very famous actor. Maybe it’s because he looks buff in the nude (which is how he makes his first appearance). In any case, he’s playing a dead man. So why not give the casting guys some leeway.”

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Entertainment of the Netflix variety is one of the most popular and free mediums that our species has yet been presented with. It presents an opportunity for expression and the free exchange of ideas that previous generations could only have dreamed of. And yet even this great tool can be bullied and in time even captured by those mobs who are now trying to turn everything – even culture – into a succession of bitter social conflicts.

Almost nobody pushes back. With only a couple of Tweets, casting decisions can be made or unmade; talented people who can draw in and hold an audience are bullied into submission. And in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘diversity’ the most regressive and undiverse thing imaginable is happening. In an era that is witnessing the politicisation and polarisation of absolutely everything, the realm of fiction and art – one of the great barrier-breakers we have – is also becoming a battle-ground for racial exclusivity and racial exclusion. And so the accusations of being race-obsessed that are illegitimately hurled at Quentin Letts one week are positively encouraged and pandered to when they emerge in broad daylight only a couple of weeks later.

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Perhaps those who are attempting to push such agendas will at some point wake up to the fact that they are heading towards an almighty logical crash. For the same logic that saw Boggess off West Side Story can just as easily be used to insist that all future Prince Hals or Isoldes should be white. Casting can either be colour blind or colour-obsessed. It cannot be both.

For decades we have been moving towards a happy colour-blindness in the arts. How strange it is that those who imagine that they are promoting equality should be the ones trying to drag us back to its opposite.

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