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  • Writer's pictureJames Ireland

Ever considered why Britain’s National Theatre's "colour-blind"* casting doesn't cut it?

Updated: Jul 4, 2020

*Preferred term "Colour-Conscious" - but the National Theatre's casting is not colour-conscious.

"Colour-blind" casting = "I don't see colour".

When the plays being programmed do not address the way the characters on stage are subjected to the racialized gaze and biases/prejudices of those around them it is a form of erasure. (Especially so in a theatre that programmes largely in naturalistic performance styles.)

By preferencing "colour-blind" casting in programming by and about white experiences over plays by/about/including people of colour, the National Theatre will never approach any authenticity of representation for people of colour in the nation it is supposed to represent.

The National Theatre produced 16 plays on its three stages between Feb and Oct 2019. 2 of these 16 involved writers of colour, both being adaptations where either the source text or adapting writer was white. (Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale adapted for young people by Justin Audibert, and Andrea Levy's Small Island adapted for stage by Helen Edmundson.)

Individual writers are not at fault when they have written critically from research, consultation, and collaboration. But when programming decisions mean they are the majority of (almost only) voices allowed to produce the culture, this is institutional racism. It means that characters and the experiences of people of colour across the rest of the programme are written, inscribed, overseen, and created by white people. This is a colonial practice.

A Comedy of Errors starring Lenny Henry is not the same as a production of Othello at addressing the lived experience of the protagonist - is not the same as a production of Behsharam by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, is not the same as a season also including work by Bola Agbaje, Amy Ng, debbie tucker green, Jasmine Lee-Jones, and more. (Not to mention directors, designers, production staff/board roles, and more.)

So what can the National Theatre do with the white-centric British theatre canon?

- Re-explore the 'canon'.

Example: Bush Theatre's 'Passing the Baton' series recently staged four pieces written by people of colour in the 20th Century that had been largely ignored in theatre history since their first productions.

- Commission adaptations.

Example: Tanika Gupta's adaption of A Doll's House for the Hammersmith Lyric was set in colonial India with an Indian protagonist and majority of characters.

- Invest in changing the balance between canon and new writing.

For example: new plays in the March-August 2020 programme Welcome to Iran (Nadia Fall) and Death of England (Clint Dyer & Roy Williams) could provide authentic representation. A revival of Sophocles (Paradise) and a military-glorifying revival of Sheridan's The Rivals is unlikely to.

- Understand that as the National Theatre it plays as much a part in selecting and creating the canon as anyone. Use that power to change it.

Instead, The National Theatre deals with the canon by… re-programming plays such as the racist, ableist, misogynist, and homophobic One Man Two Guvnors on NT at Home.

Some further reading on colour-conscious casting

- August Wilson, 'The Ground on Which I Stand', (accessible

- M_Moss, 'Colourblind Casting: What Does it Mean, and Who Benefits?', (

- Kristin Bria Hopkins, 'There's no Business like Show Business: Abandoning Colour-Blind Casting and Embracing Colour-Conscious Casting in American Theatre', (Harvard Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law)

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