In the next fortnight there are two productions coming to Yorkshire which allow us to shine a light on the issue of race, diversity and multi-cultural casting in contemporary British theatre.
Macbeth, created by one of the pioneers of British Asian Theatre, is at Harrogate Theatre from May 5 and the West Yorkshire Playhouse plays host to a contemporary classic of the genre from May 6, The Deranged Marriage by Rifco Arts.
Macbeth is the inaugural production from Black Theatre Live, a pioneering consortium of eight regional theatres which have come together to address the issue of a lack of black and ethnic minority-led work in British theatres.
Using Indian music and movement, the show, created by Tara Arts, is an entirely new – and entirely Asian – take on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.
Tara Arts is one of the UK’s foremost creators of cross-cultural theatre and has been doing so since 1977, led by artistic director Jatinder Verma.
Talking to Verma is at once an inspiring, uplifting, and strangely saddening experience. His company is almost four decades old and, truthfully, had it been truly successful it would no longer exist. The torch would have been passed on.
Verma is a trailblazer, but there have been nothing like enough similar artists following in his footsteps. “If anything, diversity has become more of an issue – as the present general election makes clear,” he says.
Surrounded by the twin challenges of migration and terrorism, perhaps this is to be expected. It seems to me we are still far from accepting ourselves as a ‘greater’ instead of a ‘lesser’ Britain.
“Of paramount importance is the inclusion of more artistic and associate directors and producers in our theatres – i.e. to get more decision-makers from diverse backgrounds. It is very encouraging, for example, to see Kully Thiarai running the Cast in Doncaster – unfortunately she is only one of three artistic directors in the country from a diverse background – and two of them are in London.”
It is a depressing statistic and it is clear the reason why we must keep making the argument and fighting the good fight. Verma has been an inspiration to many ethnic minority artists – myself included – but the journey he began in 1977 has not been followed by enough people.
Having said that, Verma believes there is cause for cautious optimism. “There is certainly a greater acceptance – even enthusiasm at times – of Asian artists around the country. Collectively, audiences seem to want to know and engage with Asian cultures,” says Verma.
I agree – I have seen that enthusiasm at West Yorkshire Playhouse when Rifco Arts pays its semi-regular visits to Leeds. More work still needs to be done by the Playhouse – and all theatres – to try and make its audiences for Uncle Vanya look as colourful as those who pack the audience when Rifco is in town, but getting shows packed out by women in saris is a start.
Rifco, led by artistic director Pravesh Kumar, is one of the British Asian-led companies that followed in the footsteps of Tara Arts. Ten years ago Rifco brought The Deranged Marriage to the Playhouse – it returns this year with one of it greatest hits.
The play provides audiences with an insight into the Asian wedding tradition. For some members of the audience it will be a rare chance to see their own lives on stage. For others, it will provide an insight into a life hitherto unknown to them.
A new version of the comedy follows the nervous couple Sona and Rishi, along with their families, during their extravagant wedding preparations. The play examines the relationship and tensions between tradition and conformity and explores how British Asian adults of today observe their ‘Britishness’ and family traditions. A knock-about comedy it might be, but in the intervening ten years since it was last seen, this play has been given a greater resonance simply by the circumstances in which British theatre now exists.
Writer and director Kumar says: “It’s not often you get to revisit one of your biggest hits. A lot has changed in the last ten years. We have grown as a company and our audience has also grown. It’s very exciting to be presenting a new version of The Deranged Marriage to previous and new audiences. As well as a new script, cast and design, the show will feature creative digital elements to aid the storytelling.”
• Macbeth, Harrogate Theatre, May 5 to 9.
• The Deranged Marriage, West Yorkshire Playhouse, May 6 to 10.