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Shakespeare database reveals ‘massive failure’ in minority casting

Ladi Emeruwa and Amanda Wilkin in the international tour of Shakespeare's Globe's Hamlet. Photo: Helena Miscioscia Ladi Emeruwa and Amanda Wilkin in the international tour of Shakespeare's Globe's Hamlet. Photo: Helena Miscioscia
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Black and Asian actors are sidelined into “second-tier” roles in Shakespeare plays and are rarely cast as the lead, according to a major new online database of minority ethnic performers.

It reveals many Shakespearean supporting roles have been played twice as often by black and Asian actors as the leading roles in the corresponding play.

These include Laertes and Ophelia in Hamlet, Banquo in Macbeth, and both Hero and Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing.

Jami Rogers, who headed up the research by the University of Warwick, said it highlighted a “massive failure in imagination” by directors and casting directors.

Speaking to The Stage, she said the database demonstrated clear growth in the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic stage roles over the past 85 years.

However, she added that since the 1980s “somehow or other casting patterns have just got stuck”.

Rogers added: “Ethnic minority actors don’t seem to be nurtured up the casting tree. They’re sort of confined to second-tier best friend roles, or small servant roles, or roles that are ‘exotic’ like the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And very rarely do you get a black actor playing a Shakespearean lead these days.”

The British Black and Asian Shakespeare Performance Database details the casts of 1,189 Shakespearean productions dating back to 1930.

It reveals that Laertes and Ophelia have been played by black or Asian actors 14 times in productions of Hamlet, compared to six times in the title role.

In Macbeth, BAME performers are most often cast as one of the witches (42 occasions) or Banquo (24 occasions), and have played Macbeth only 12 times and Lady Macbeth nine times.

In comparison, the title character in Othello has been played 83 times by BAME actors.

The database was established to shine a light on the work of black and Asian performers, which Rogers claimed was “generally underreported”.

Rogers said the findings also indicated that certain Shakespeare roles were “earmarked” for minority ethnic actors.

She said: “In [stagings of] Much Ado About Nothing, Don Pedro frequently gets cast using a black or Asian actor, but it’s in the wake of Denzel Washington’s big film performance for Kenneth Branagh. It seems to me that it’s a massive failure in imagination by casting directors, and to some extent directors as well.”

The database is now live, and users are able to search through it by play, role, theatre company and actor.

As well as listing historical data, it will continue to be updated with casting information from new Shakespearean productions and adaptations.

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