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Simon Callow: Denying black roles to white actors is ‘nonsense’

Simon Callow in Inside Wagner’s Head at the Linbury Studio Theatre, London, in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Simon Callow in Inside Wagner’s Head at the Linbury Studio Theatre, London, in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Simon Callow has spoken out in defence of white actors portraying black roles in theatre.

He claimed it was not as offensive as people assume because acting is “an act of empathy”, and also criticised the idea that transgender roles should not be played by cisgender (non-trans) actors. Callow suggested it was “madness” to deny actors parts on this basis.

“The whole idea of acting has gone out of the window, if you follow the logic of that,” the actor told The Telegraph, adding: “To say it is offensive to transgendered people for non-trans people to play them is nonsense.”

He continued: “Because you have to have been a murderer to play Macbeth, you have to be Jewish to play Shylock. It’s nonsense.”

Claiming acting was “an act of empathy about someone you don’t know or understand”, he proceeded to defend Laurence Olivier’s controversial turn as Othello for the National Theatre in 1964.

Olivier wore black make up for the performance, which was later turned into a film.

He said: “The criticisms of Olivier’s Othello were very complex and confusing. One of the things they most held against him were that he studied, admittedly, Caribbeans rather than Moors – or Moroccans, or whatever Othello is – and found they have certain patterns of physical movements.”

He went on: ”Well, why wouldn’t they? Is that offensive? It’s true that not all black people walk in a snake-hipped way, but there are some that do.”

Disputing the idea that blackface in theatre was always offensive, Callow asked: “Is it so offensive? I don’t know. People say it’s offensive because it reminds you of the Black and White Minstrel show. But it’s a different thing altogether.”

“It would depend on the circumstances, absolutely,” he added.

Last year, Steven Berkoff made similar criticisms of the “no-go zone” for white actors surrounding Othello, while Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells said theatres should “grow up” and allow white actors to play traditionally black parts.

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