I was a member of the ‘mob’ audience of Nicholas Hytner’s stunning production of Julius Caesar (2018) at the Bridge Theatre, and aside from being completely blown away by the production itself and the incredible level of talent from Ben Whishaw, Michelle Farly, and the whole cast, there was one person whom I found so personally inspiring.
When Wendy Kweh graced the stage in all her elegance, I paused for breath. In that space, seeing an incredibly talented actor of Asian ethnicity onstage as a distraught Calpurnia, a realisation hit me like a wave: in all my years of growing up and going to the theatre, as far as I can recall, I had never seen an Asian actor in a professional Shakespeare play in the UK before. Moreover, I had not even realised this fact until I saw Kweh onstage, standing in front of me. I had subconsciously accepted that it did not happen – even to the extent that I had not consciously thought about it at all.
The promenade nature of the show – Calpurnia’s proximity to me – made the moment feel even more surprising, beautiful, and personal. Hearing Calpurnia deliver her iambic pentameter in the iconic British Shakespearean rhythm made me feel extremely moved, and I won’t lie, as Calpurnia wept for her husband, I may have shed a little tear, too.
I think that Wendy Kweh and Leaphia Darko both did absolutely superb jobs in the two iconic roles of Calpurnia and Portia. I was disappointed that some of their scenes were cut, since there aren’t that many in the first place. Darko was the most earnest, genuine, and interesting Portia I have seen, giving even Ben Whishaw a run for his money. Kweh was etherial in silk pyjamas, reminding me of a scene in Devil Wears Prada in which fashion publication-powerhouse Miranda (Meryl Streep) has just heard the news that her husband wants a divorce – the austere power-suit dynamic is replaced by fragile, white, silk pyjamas. In a landscape of social upheaval and political disaster, Kweh was radiant, burrowed in a blanket, looking both withered and fierce. Not a weak Calpurnia, but a strong one, following her (spot-on) survival instincts.
Diversity in the theatre industry is particularly important to younger audience members, and that’s why I wish that I had seen this production when I was younger. When I was auditioning at school for Shakespeare plays, I thought that I was only able to audition because it was for school, but that that wasn’t a reflection of the professional world. I believed that if I were ever cast in a school play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, it would look like I was pretending to be a Shakespearean character, not actually being one like the professional actors whom I had seen. I thought that this would be very obvious to the audience and now looking back on it, I think that this is why I felt slightly awkward onstage and preferred being behind-the-scenes.
And yet here I was, in my twenties, watching someone who ‘looked like me’ opposite David Calder and taking Nicholas Hytner’s stage by force. Honestly, I know that I sound like I might be over-dramatising but that moment did really hit me. This is why representation is so important, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that children can look at actors and think, ‘Oh, I could do that,’ or ‘Oh, people like me can do that.’ If Shakespeare is our national poet, Britain’s bard, his plays should be accessible and representational of the UK. A play shouldn’t have to be set in another country to feature people of colour. There are people of colour in Britain! Right! Now! And there have been for centuries! If the purpose of art is to reflect reality, to stimulate and provoke thought, why should theatrical productions not reflect those who are watching them? And if theatre is for dreaming, understanding different people, and viewing different perspectives, why should we limit this? Why should we not allow children of colour to dream, too?
If I had seen a production like this when I was younger, I would have seen that it is possible; Asian actors can be Shakespearean characters simply by playing Shakespearean characters. They just need the opportunity. Wendy Kweh is a great role model for younger generations, and hopefully children of colour from all backgrounds around the country saw the production on their cinema screens through National Theatre Live. And I haven’t even begun to talk about how great Adjoa Andoh was as Casca, or Kit Young as Octavius. I’m sure that the production inspired many young, aspiring actors.
I’m so grateful to see race-blind casting in period productions becoming more and more popular in London, evidenced by many other excellent productions which I’ve seen recently: Six (Arts Theatre, 2017), The Grinning Man (Trafalgar Studios, 2018), Amadeus (The National Theatre, 2018), and Fanny and Alexander (The Old Vic, 2018), to name a few. A special shout-out goes to Amanda Wilkin for absolutely killing it in The Grinning Man as Josiana, the Queen’s sister! Six completely blew me away – a story about Henry VIII’s ex-wives (divorced, beheaded, survived, etc.) which featured several women of colour as British Tudor women (in a pop contest to win the prize for having had the most tragic life, I might add); it was extraordinarily good and very amusing. I can’t wait to buy the soundtrack when it comes out.
I think that Hamilton, of course, was historically influential in making race-blind casting in period dramas more mainstream. It’s great that because of the Hamilton effect, more roles are becoming accessible to actors of colour in the West End. I’m sure that younger audience members are very inspired. So, bravo to London’s theatres and production companies! As ever, the stage is leading the way and at the cutting-edge of progression and social issues. There is now a large gap between period drama onstage and onscreen. If only we could see the same kind of representation on TV and film. Time to step up, folks! Let’s shake things up.