Earlier this year, Warwick University launched an innovative online database, charting the Shakespearean roles played by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic actors in the UK, from 1930 to the present day.
Among other things, it revealed a disturbing trend; while the ambitious project showed clear growth in the number of BAME stage roles in recent years, many of those roles tended to be confined to ‘second tier’ or supporting parts, rather than lead roles.
A quick search of the database shows that while 16 BAME actors have played Ophelia, and 16 her brother Laertes, just 8 have played Hamlet (including Paapa Essiedu, the first black actor to be cast in the role by the RSC, who won Best Performance in a Play at the UK Theatre Awards this year.)
This sticks, but one touring company, Black Theatre Live, is out to make its mark on the statistics – and challenge ideas around both setting and casting decisions.
Its production of Hamlet features not only an all-black cast, but crew, directing and production team too.
Adapted by Mark Norfolk and directed by Jeffrey Kissoon, it casts Hamlet as a studious young black man, forced to face the realities of his social identity, and raging against the injustice of his position.
“It’s about the family,” says Norfolk, explaining how he and Kissoon discussed adapting the classic text. “Jeffery had the idea of talking about the black family. He wanted to explore the idea of disruption; why do some young black men go off the rails?”
The production team describe it as the first all-black Hamlet the UK has seen, and Norfolk adds: “We wanted to see how it works when you create a world of black people and see how they interact with each other within that world, and how that reflects on society today.”
Could Black Theatre Live, and other all-black theatre companies, be considered to be divisive rather than diverse? Norfolk doesn’t think so, as long as the playing field in which BAME actors and creative work remains so skewed; “There is a racist world already that exists, the playground that exists is not fair,” he justifies.
“What we discovered was that the black creatives we’re working with are trained – they went to stage schools and universities, and but when they left they would get no work. If they get no work, they leave the industry.”
He admits that he’s been pigeonholed by race himself. “People think ‘oh you’re black, the only thing you can do is write about black people’,” he says. “I don’t see race as an issue. I write the play, whatever the story, it needs to be told.”
He noticed this creeping prejudice at a young age, when he won a competition for writing at school; “It was difficult back in those days being black, it wasn’t encouraged for black people to do anything creative,” he recalls.
Norfolk describes Hamlet as one of Shakespeare’s most contemporary plays – and although race is at the heart of his adaptation, the appeal for him lay in the fact that the story transcends so many boundaries.
“It really speaks about the human condition, and it speaks about today,” he says. “And it is a play that can be played in any country, in any language, anywhere in the world and it would still work. It is dealing with the breakup of the family, political change, which is also happening today, how people find themselves with mental health issues, and how they are affected by these things. Obviously in the play there is murder, mayhem and tragedy, but essentially the themes are very prevalent for today.”
Its an intimidating task for any writer to adapt Shakespeare, but Norfolk and Kissoon were determined that they had a story to tell – several in fact.
“We found that all of the focus is on Hamlet,” he says, explaining the approach he and the director took.
“You couldn’t really talk about the other characters in the play, you couldn’t know what their motivations were, what drives them – so we wanted to do a production where all the characters had a story to tell, and were given a platform to tell that story. We also really wanted to talk about the domestic issues that afflict young Hamlet”.
Hamlet’s key theme of identity is one that Norfolk, who’s writing for stage include Guardian Culture Award-winning Knock Down Ginger, Where the Flowers Grow and Blair’s Children, has explored in much of his previous work.
But as a multi award-winning screenplay writer and playwright, it’s been a new experience for Norfolk to play the role of adaptor, working with pre-existing text, and he describes his relationship with the work as very different from the one he has with his own writing.
“Towards the end of the run, I might go and see it and see how it’s changed or grown,” he says. “But because its Shakespeare’s play, it doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s mine.
“The play exists already, it is for the adaptor to remain faithful to it.”
There’s one element of Shakespeare’s original setting however, that Norfolk is particularly keen to rekindle – it’s democratic approach to audience makeup.
“Theatre has a tradition, particularly post-war, which excludes working classes,” he says.
“When Shakespeare was writing, he was writing for not just the intellectuals but for the ones who would pay a penny for a ticket, and I think that’s where we need to go.”
With affordability key to engagement, he proposes a severe, but long-sighted approach: “You should make a large portion of those tickets free for schools and colleges and that’s how you encourage new audiences. Once people go along, and they have a taste of it, it’s something that they want to get involved with. It’s just got to be made affordable.”
Norfolk feels passionately that the issue goes far beyond individual theatres, which often run effective engagement schemes. As a former writer in residence at HMP High Down, working with the Writers in Prison Network, he is convinced of the power of theatre to engage individuals.
“Theatre allows you to really express yourself, and not just through performing,” he says.
“What I did a lot of with these guys in prison was to just allow them to speak. Most of the time they don’t get their chances to speak to someone who was non-judgemental, who would let them speak and express themselves – that was a wonderful thing. If programmes like this are properly funded, they become self-sustaining, because young people become involved themselves. But someone needs to get it up and running.”
What is the legacy that Mark envisions for this production? He says that through the opportunity it’s created, at least three of the crew have already been earmarked as talented stars of the future.
“We wanted to use this chance to give other people an opportunity, and on my part that’s been very successful, I’m very happy we took that risk,” he says.
“I remember on our opening night, I was sitting in the theatre and there was this old couple in front of me, and they said ‘oh yes, this reminds me of the Sixties.’ I thought what a great thing to have; those were the days when theatre was edgy. This production is the first of its kind as it is. The legacy has already been etched, it’s done, so anything can happen.”
Hamlet is on tour playing various dates until November 5.
Black Theatre Live is a consortium of eight regional theatre led by Tara Arts, committed to effecting change nationally for BAME touring theatre through a three year programme of national touring, structural support and audience development. It is supported by Arts Council England, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the John Ellerman Foundation and the Ernest Cook Trust.
Image ©Tristram Kenton