The rehearsal room is light and quiet and two young actors are sitting at a table, bent over their copies of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Oliver Mott will be playing Orlando and Gershwyn Eustache will be playing the lord, Amiens. The actors talk about how rewarding it is to act in classical plays: “Sometimes you don’t know what is being said, but it’s the beauty of finding out what the words exactly mean. To use language in that way is really beautiful,” says Eustache and Mott agrees, “You get a real sense of achievement out of it.”
Rebecca Loudon (Rosalind) has just finished a play at Birmingham Rep about the pressures at state schools in Britain, and Olivia Scott-Taylor (Celia) is straight off the set of Wild at Heart, the ITV1 family soap opera. They sit down to practice their duologues, and they too talk about their appreciation of Shakespeare: “It’s challenging but that’s good. You can really get your teeth into it,” says Scott-Taylor.
Chetan Pathak, who plays both Dukes, also works as a journalist for the BBC’s Asian Network, “to pay the bills, but at heart I’m an actor. It’s just not easy to get those parts,” he says, referring to his Asian looks and background. It’s still rare for actors from an ethnic minority background to be cast in lead roles at big theatre companies.
This group of young actors from different ethnic backgrounds have been brought together by the theatre company Custom/Practice and the director Rae Mcken. She believes that plays need to appeal to an audience who is not the usual white, middle-class theatregoer. To McKen, it’s clear that Britain’s social hierarchy is defined along class and racial lines and that’s reflected in the theatre industry. As a young director and theatre educator, she wants to open the world of theatre, especially classical plays, to a wider and more mixed audience.
McKen knew from an early age that she wanted to be a theatre director, and remembers declaring that goal to her mother, who replied, “Sure, if that’s what you want to do.” But this attitude towards theatre is rare: “Not enough people see theatre as something normal which they can be part of. Teenagers from less well-off backgrounds feel as if classical plays are not for them, as if they are somehow out of their reach.” Bringing actors onto the stage who look more like the majority of people in the street, she thinks, will lure those into the theater who otherwise feel excluded from it.
Growing up in predominately white and middle-class Guildford, McKen stood out because of her Jamaican looks and struggled to define her identity. “How can I be British when I feel like an outsider here? How could I be Jamaican if I’ve never even been to that country?” Her love for the quintessentially British Shakespeare helped her to find answers. Today, she believes ithat Shakespeare’s universality helped her to bridge her identity gap, and “anyone who thinks I’m not British just because I’m half Jamaican has to go away and think about their definition of British again. We’re a multicultural and multiethnic nation. And Shakespeare is part of all the cultures who live here.”
Based in London, Custom/Practice is dedicated to tearing down the imagined walls around theatre, and drawing in young people from poorer and racially mixed backgrounds. It’s all about getting young people excited about classical plays that are part of their cultural heritage in the UK. That’s why McKen wants to break up stereotypes within the theatre industry by confronting the audience with a 21st-century-representative cast in classical plays.
Partly, McKen’s inspiration comes from personal experiences, which have made her all the more determined to give good actors leading roles, no matter what their skin colour is and no matter how well spoken they may be. “We all live in our small worlds” she says, “and even when we think that we are open minded we all have our own set of prejudices. The amount of times people have made wrong assumptions about me or put me into a certain box… It made me mad.” Art and culture can be gateways to change perceptions but they need to be accessible to the majority of society to have an effect.
Custom/Practice is not a theatre company that works exclusively with black and Asian actors. Actors are not cast because of their skin colour; it’s always about the acting first. The best actor gets the part: “The difference is that we see nothing wrong with a black or Asian Romeo, for instance. And if he hasn’t been taught how to read classical texts then we’ll work on it with him, because anyone with a bit of talent can learn it. You don’t need to go to a posh school to get Shakespeare.”
As You Like It plays at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre from April 24rd – May 19th. For more information and tickets, please visit the website.