What are the new rules on race and performance? In the world of TV, everyone is busy apologising, self-censoring and denouncing their previous work.
Ant and Dec have deleted routines in which they imitated Japanese girls and people of colour. The comedian Leigh Francis has expressed contrition for satirising Craig David in Bo' Selecta! (which was nominated for a Best Comedy Bafta in 2004). Matt Lucas and David Walliams have withdrawn sketches featuring dark-skinned characters.
The new rule appears to forbid actors from playing characters whose racial origins they don’t share. Or does it? The National Theatre seems to disagree and it plans to livestream two shows which break that convention. On June 26 it will broadcast a 2016 production of Amadeus by Peter Schaffer. The play concerns the jealousy of an Italian composer, Salieri, who plots to bump off his rival, Mozart. The role of Salieri is taken by Lucian Msamati, a British-born actor of Tanzanian heritage. I saw and reviewed the show and it’s an exhilarating period thriller. Msamati gives as good an account of the tortured villain, Salieri, as you could hope to see. And his fine performance reveals the problem with the new rules. An actor’s ethnicity is immaterial to his skill on stage. All that matters is his ability to embrace the essence of the character and to elicit an emotional response from the audience.
This indifference to ethnicity has long been observed in the theatre. In 1979 I joined a school trip to a West End production of Othello starring Donald Sinden. He gave a memorably fruity, high-camp performance. In one scene he glided onto the stage wearing a silver jump-suit, like Elvis. It was hardly a definitive Moor but the RSC, who produced the show, felt he had the right to try.
I’m aware that these cases are different. Msamati played Salieri without disguising his skin colour whereas Sinden wore dark grease-paint on his face and hands.
So maybe that’s the rule. Cross-racial performances are acceptable but actors must display their native pigmentation. If so the National Theatre is about to break that regulation too. On July 16 it will broadcast Les Blancs by the American playwright, Lorraine Hansberry. Written in 1970, this period drama examines the workings of European colonialism in Africa but it isn’t a ‘masterpiece’ as some have claimed. Hansberry’s insights are not especially original or profound. Significantly, the play includes scenes that flout the ban on body-paint. Black characters, portrayed by black actors, put on white-face and satirise the accents and mannerisms of the English upper-classes. To be fair, this mockery seems morally justified in the context of the play because the Europeans are invaders who treat the conquered Africans as possessions. So the audience is likely to sympathise with the black characters’ motives for lampooning the whites.
But creating sympathy isn’t enough to evade the ban, is it? If a defence of ‘sympathy’ were valid, Matt Lucas and David Walliams might have argued that their dark-skinned comic characters are appealing creations who are being celebrated, not derided. But that claim is unlikely to have saved their trans-racial sketches.
And it’s obvious that these restrictions on race are not being applied universally. The great musical, Hamilton, presents America’s founding fathers as black characters who are played on stage by black or mixed-race actors. In 2017, the Old Vic produced an exhilarating new musical, Pankhurst, with a predominantly black cast playing the leaders of the suffragette movement. These exceptions show how absurd and stifling the ban is. Any human can imitate any human. The success or failure of the impersonation is for viewers to judge.
Harry Enfield was recently quizzed on Radio 4 about mimicking politicians and he expressed his readiness to take off Rishi Sunak. No doubt his naivety was deliberate. In the current mood it’s inconceivable that anyone other than an Asian would be permitted to impersonate the chancellor. So if the part of Sunak were offered, actors from every race bar one would be denied the chance to attend the audition, to express their talent, and to land the job. Every race bar one. What a terrible phrase. But this is the new world we are building. A new order is being created. A new hierarchy of privileges and prohibitions based on ethnicity is taking root. We are strengthening the vice we sought to eliminate.