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Matthew Xia: Theatre’s limitless scope gives it a duty to reflect diversity

Don Warrington opened up a world of new possibilities in King Lear at Manchester’s Royal Exchange earlier this year – Matthew Xia says ‘colour-brave’ casting can be transformative and make audiences think again. Photo: Jonathan Keenan Don Warrington opened up a world of new possibilities in King Lear at Manchester’s Royal Exchange earlier this year – Matthew Xia says ‘colour-brave’ casting can be transformative and make audiences think again. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
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remember watching Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, and as I left I overheard two women talking. This is what they said: “How on earth did they expect us to believe that that black man (George Harris) fathered those white children?”

I remember thinking: “Hold on, you can suspend your disbelief enough to allow for a humanoid creature to be built from cadavers, stitched together and reanimated by a heavenly spark, but interracial relationships are a step too far?” And then it happened again with Trevor Nunn’s The Wars of the Roses. And again with The Telegraph’s review of the Royal Exchange Theatre’s recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire. And again, when the casting was announced for Harry Potter with Noma Dumezweni as Hermione. The frenzy that this decision caused across social media reminded me, again, that ethnicity, or more specifically the tone of one’s skin, remains, in theatre, an immovable barrier for some.

But in an industry that is fuelled by imagination, play and make-believe, why do we continue to return to narrow-minded ideas about how shows and their casts should look? What does this mean for on-stage diversity and our fight to make, support and create art that truly, realistically reflects the richness and complexity of our world?

This idea that we all ought to conform to an inflexible reality is not only creatively limiting, but also extremely worrying. For such a long time theatre has been defined by white men writing plays for white people. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case, but sometimes it is a reality that we (practitioners, audiences, critics) remain tied to. So, why is it seemingly so difficult to cut those ties and make, or accept, casting decisions that reflect a new, broader reality, one that is in tune with the diversity of our communities, and more reflective of the society we live in? Anyone who has been following recent conversations and developments in the arts industry will be more than aware that diversity is a hot topic.

At a fundamental level, Arts Council England’s Creative Case for Diversity is built on great and accessible art for everyone, and the way to begin to achieve that is for us, as practitioners and organisations, to live ACE’s statement by providing opportunities for everyone, on stage, off stage, as creators, as viewers and as performers.

So, what is it that makes those decisions difficult to make and sometimes even more difficult to embrace?

Perhaps one reason is the hyper-reality that we experience on screen. Film and television are unrestricted in their ability to find the correct location for a particular scene – if the script demands a ‘streetcar’ they will film on a streetcar, and so on. In theatre, we are asking more, we ask our audiences to trust us, to sign an invisible contract that requires their input – imagination.

As theatremakers, we aren’t tied to this idea of replicating or ‘imitating’ authenticity. In the theatre, we’ve worked exceptionally hard to create a space in which it is safe to imagine, to suspend disbelief for a few hours and to allow our audiences the freedom to become absorbed in the stage action. I strongly believe theatre is a space where we, as practitioners and audience members, can let our imaginations run wild – a box can become a chair, a table, a cake, a car, a hat, merely at the suggestion that it is. A lighting shift can take us from the streets of South Africa to the inside of a shebeen; sound design can let us in on someone’s internal perspective.

As a director, I work with an incredibly talented creative team to make the suspension of disbelief easier to manage, I can transport you to the fantastical world of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods without the need for actual wolves or CGI giants, to a South African township with some sheets of ply-wood, and I can ask you to step into the world of a desperate young family knee-deep in benefit claim forms without asking you to accompany me to the local job centre. Most of the time a more thoughtful and reflective exchange takes place in theatre, and when theatre does wander off the ‘literal’ path it is -readily embraced – just look to the Royal Exchange’s staging of Hamlet with Maxine Peake as the Danish Prince, the huge success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Kneehigh’s Dead Dog in a Suitcase, and the work of Peter Brook for a few examples.

Across the country, on our many stages, we see adults play children, humans play animals or domestic appliances, men as women and women as men. But there are moments, like at Frankenstein, that act as a stark reminder that, for some, when ethnicity comes into play the suspension of disbelief becomes more complicated. This is why it is vital that theatre embraces and pushes the boundaries of a preconceived reality. When I was 11, I walked into the Theatre Royal Stratford East and saw people of all shapes, sizes and colours playing people of great difference to themselves. I imagined I could do this too.

I thought, ‘Yes, even as a mixed-race teenager, I can play the king or queen of Britain.’ In our youth theatre and on the stage, there was never any question of our actual truths when leaping into imagined worlds. As I made my hobby my career, I held on to these principles; that I could reflect the world I saw and experienced around me, that I could explore a world that I wanted to see, and I could grab the cliched narratives and stereotypes and subvert them. I could present a world where young black men, for example, were not just depicted as drug-dealing gang members with guns. I refuse to accept that those of us with disabilities or darker-hued skin don’t get to reinvent and interpret classic roles. Just as Frantz Fanon claims in his seminal Black Skin, White Masks, we can and do exist beyond the framework of a culturally white supremacist world view.

Junot Diaz is a Dominican-American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer I admire. He said: “There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. And part of what inspired me was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and not feel so monstrous for it.”

This is what I believe and part of the reason I wanted to become a theatre director. Theatre is uniquely placed to make multifaceted mirrors that create many different reflections. We can challenge the idea of literal interpretations of ready-made ‘realities’. In doing this, we open up a world of possibilities, where Don Warrington is King Lear, Ony Uhiara is Anna Karenina and Sharon Duncan-Brewster is Stella Kowalski. Theatre can be transformative, make audiences look and think again. That’s why it’s important we continue to be brave in our casting decisions and encourage audiences to question their ideas of authenticity and truth.

Let’s ask what depth non-ethnically specific casting can add to this story, this production, this company. How does this choice change or challenge the original intentions of the play? Does this, or how does this, change my opinion of the drama unfolding on stage? And sometimes, most times even, the director is simply casting the most brilliant and engaging actor they can and making some of Diaz’s mirrors in the process. By continuing to make this ‘colour-brave’ casting, it will eventually just be ‘casting’. Let’s celebrate the diversity of talent and voices available to us – which is what we’ve been doing here at the Exchange and in theatres across the country for some time now.

There is still a very long way to go. That’s why I’ve been involved in the creation of charities like Act for Change and Artistic Directors of the Future – established to bring about real change on stage and screen and also within the management, governance and operation of subsidised arts organisations. It is our responsibility to make theatre reflective of society – and in the UK that society is vastly diverse. It is undeniable that the journey to true equality on stage is only just beginning. Those of us who create, curate and critique must help to shape the change which is being called for by our actors and our audiences.

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