Color-blind casting and other distractions at the Stratford Festival

Gareth Potter and Nikki M. James as Romeo and Juliet

Gareth Potter and Nikki M. James as Romeo and Juliet

(September 2008)  This year’s Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) has a racially mixed cast. Emsworth is fine with color-blind casting and wouldn’t ordinarily think it worth mentioning unless it’s botched. That’s what happened here. (Emsworth reviews this unsatisfactory show at this post.)

In this production, Juliet is played by Nikki M. James, a young black woman, while Romeo is played by Gareth Potter, a young white man. At first I thought that director Des McAnuff was casting the entire Montague clan as a white family and all of the Capulets as a black family, all in a patronizing attempt to make the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets “relevant”.

Selfishly, I welcomed the prospect of a Romeo and Juliet in which I would be able to tell the factions apart by the color of their skin, for the same reason I am grateful that football players wear uniforms. Emsworth isn’t good with faces, and visual cues help keep him track of large numbers of characters on stage.

But this was not to be. Juliet, it turned out, had a black mother and a white father. Romeo, on the other hand, had a white mother and (how’s that? was he adopted?) a black father.

Mr. and Mrs. Montague, played by Irene Poole and Roy Lewis

Two multi-racial couples at the head of the feuding families? Too much of a coincidence to reflect color-blind casting; the director did this on purpose. But why? I missed several speeches during the play while I tried to figure out what he might have intended. I never did.

This was a distraction we could have done without. As it is, an audience trying to follow a play performed in Elizabethan English needs all its concentration to hear and understand what’s being said. A director owes it to his audience not to use gimmicks that draw attention away from the dialogue.

For that matter, what was director McAnuff’s point in having this Romeo and Juliet start in modern times, move back 400 years, and then revert to modern times? (In the last scene, coroners in modern dress arrive at the scene of the carnage at the Capulet crypt.) I didn’t get it. Once again, I was distracted from the play while I tried to make sense of it.

Personally, I don’t need gimmicks like color-coded casting, or like setting Hamlet in 1938 (as in another play at Stratford this season), to help me understand Shakespeare’s “relevance” to modern society. I wouldn’t buy tickets in the first place if I didn’t think Romeo and Juliet still speaks to the way we live now.

The cult of multiculturalism and its priests give the Stratford Festival their stamp of righteous approval, but say the Shaw Festival still hasn’t gotten religion on “diversity”. Emsworth loses patience in this post.

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  1. […] been numerous productions focusing on color conscience casting. Including Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival, which featured a mixed race cast and the recent Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on […]

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