Diversity? I'm all for it, except in my own musical, says Downton creator
Just as the Palace announced that George Washington would be played by the actor Obioma Ugoala in the first West End production of the smash Broadway hip-hop musical, Hamilton, the Noel Coward was going on the defensive.
Julian Fellowes, its current show-runner, said that while he was “quite strongly” in favour of more diversity on the stage, an exception had to be made for his current production, a revival of the musical, Half a Sixpence, because of its late Victorian setting.
To hire anything other than an all-white cast would have been unrealistic, the creator of Downton Abbey told The Stage, the widely-read journal of the theatre industry.
Half a Sixpence, though written in the Sixties as a vehicle for the Cockney song-and-dance man Tommy Steele, is based on Kipps, HG Wells’ 1905 novel about an orphan who inherits a fortune.
Lord Fellows said that for period dramas, it would be “untruthful” to cast ethnic minorities.
The Yorkshire-educated peer, who also wrote the book for the stage version of Mary Poppins, said “I feel quite strongly that ethnic minorities don’t get a sufficient look-in.
“When you are doing a modern drama there is absolutely no reason why anyone can’t play most of the parts. But Sixpence is set in 1900 in a seaside town. You’re in a different territory.”
Hamilton, which opens in London in the autumn, charts a territory all its own. The show, already one of the most successful ever on the New York stage, employs a cast of mostly non-white actors, rapping into hand-held microphones, to tell the story of the founding of America.
Fellowes, 67, who introduced a black character into the North Yorkshire surroundings of Downton Abbey, noted that it was no longer “right” for a white actor to play Othello, and that the overall consensus would be to welcome a black actor portraying Henry V, particularly on camera.
His remarks follow a report commissioned by Andrew Lloyd Webber last year into what he called the “hideously white” British theatre industry.
Lloyd-Webber urged “responsibility and specific action” from organisations and individuals across the industry, including “arts sector bodies, drama schools, theatre producers, actors, creative teams and philanthropists”.
Leeds-based Opera North is among the companies whose inclusive casting has been recognised. Five years ago, its acclaimed production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s turn-of-the-century musical, Carousel, put the African-American baritone Eric Greene in the traditionally white role of the fairground worker, Billy Bigelow. It also staged the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate with a multi-ethnic ensemble, and cast Ji-Min Park and Hye-Youn Lee in Verdi’s La traviata.
Its general manager, Richard Mantle, said today that musical theatre benefitted from diversity, and the stage should be “truly representative of contemporary society”.
He said: “Whether a work is set in the modern era or an historical period, what matters most is its ability to connect with, move, and speak to the audiences who are seeing the piece today.”
Nick Ahad, the broadcaster and columnist for The Yorkshire Post, said that despite Lord Fellowes’ gift for period drama, his view of an all-white Victorian London was historically inaccurate.
He said: “This really gets to the heart of the problem with lack of representation in the industry: hand wringing liberals who want diversity, just not at the expense of their own jobs. It’s not good enough, he needs to put his money where his supposed principles are.”