In the Shakespeare Institute Library, a plethora of information about Shakespearean production can be found – on the shelves, in the newscuttings collection and in the archive. I recently stumbled across what are essentially remnants of the 1991 Cheek By Jowl As You Like It from 1991, which brought back very fond memories of one of the best productions of Shakespeare I have ever seen. It was an all-male production in the post-feminist era (before Propeller and the Globe made it “fashionable”), with Adrian Lester as Rosalind and Tom Hollander as Celia. Although I had a few productions under my belt by then I had never seen a finer Rosalind in Lester.
In the newspaper cuttings collection, I also found a small piece on the 1990 Ian Charleson award nominees, one of whom was Paterson Joseph, being nominated for his classical work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1990, Joseph made his mark on my theatre-going by producing memorable stints as Oswald in Nicholas Hytner’s King Lear, an outrageous fop in Nick Dear’s adaptation of Tirso de Molina’s The Last Days of Don Juan (directed by the then-unknown Danny Boyle) and a subtle and complex portrayal of Patroclus in Sam Mendes’s production of Troilus and Cressida. For the latter, memories also flooded back of the four months Joseph took over the lead when Ralph Fiennes left the company, eventually to do Schindler’s List, and produced a remarkable Troilus of his own. It went by without fanfare, but he was the first black actor to play an eponymous character in a Shakespeare play at the RSC that was not Othello.There is obviously a reason I’ve singled out these two particular performers – Lester and Joseph – for this piece, but at the time I saw those shows what I saw were two incredible actors giving brilliant performances in Shakespeare which I went back to time and time again. Never mind that Lester has never worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Never mind that Joseph didn’t return to the Royal Shakespeare Company for nearly twenty years. Shockingly, Adrian Lester has only been cast in five Shakespeare theatre productions – granted, the past two have been leads at the National Theatre. Amazingly, since 1990, Paterson Joseph has been in four Shakespeare productions.
What slowly dawned on me during the course of my PhD was that Joseph and Lester had virtually disappeared from the Shakespearean stage. What I gradually began to notice in researching contemporary productions of Shakespeare was that while there had been prominent black actors playing leads twenty years ago there seemed to be fewer in contemporary theatre. I decided to collect simple casting data to test the observation to see if it held up, focusing on the ratio between ethnic minority and white actors in a cast and looking at the parts they were playing. The results can be found here: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/shb/summary/v031/31.3.rogers.html (or open access via http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/bbashakespeare/entry/guest_blog_jami/ )
There is a small but growing body of work on the contribution black and Asian actors have made to British theatre and film. Stemming from my research for the article above, I am creating a database of British black and Asian Shakespearean actors for the University of Warwick’s Multicultural Shakespeare project, which will be publicly available next year, so watch this space: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/research/currentprojects/multiculturalshakespeare/resources/database/
The Shakespeare Institute Library houses various other resources that have contributed to the presence of a multicultural theatre in twenty-first century Britain and America: Jonathan Holmes celebrates Adrian Lester’s work in The Routledge Companion to Actors’ Shakespeare; Claire Cochrane writes about changing demographics in the theatre in Twentieth Century British Theatre: Industry, Art and Empire; Ayanna Thompson’s excellent Colorblind Shakespeare and Passing Strange have provided the foundation upon which much of the current work rests; and Tony Howard’s article on Paul Robeson in Shakespeare Bulletin and the Robeson Project (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/capital/teaching_and_learning/projects/robeson/) have kick-started a new phase in reassessing the contribution of British black and Asian actors to Shakespeare in the theatre. My contribution to this body of work – currently the article and the database in progress – began in the Shakespeare Institute Library.
Honorary Fellow, Multicultural Shakespeare, University of Warwick
(and Library Support Assistant, Shakespeare Institute Library)