Is there any phrase more insidious than ‘it’s PC gone mad?’ Any more tedious? And any more likely to be seen more on Twitter and the Daily Mail in the just announced casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Dumezweni – an acclaimed actor currently garnering rave reviews for her performance in Linda at the Royal Court – is a black woman, so of course her casting has stirred up the usual tiresome controversy about casting a person of colour in the role of someone assumed to be, in the minds of the audience if not the creator, originally white.
It’s an issue that we see raise its ugly head time and time again, when any role of cultural significance comes open to recasting. Idris Elba isn’t ‘English’ enough for Bond, says Roger Moore (since Elba was born in Hackney, Moore can’t blame people for assuming ‘English’ isn’t actually what he meant, here – and I’m sure the fact that Dumezweni was born in Swaziland will come in handy for those wishing to object to the casting on the basis that Hermione should be, ahem, British); Patterson Joseph – a popular frontrunner for Doctor Who – was ruled out by many fans on the basis that the Doctor has always been white, and therefore should remain so. And while JK Rowling herself has stated herself delighted with the casting choice – and states (albeit somewhat disingenuously) that having described Hermione as having ‘frizzy brown hair and brown eyes’ the colour of her skin was never mentioned, so she could have been intended to be a person of colour all along. (Though it should be noted that canonical description doesn’t necessarily preclude this kind of outcry, as anyone who remembers the storm over the casting of young African-American actress Amandla Stenberg as Rue, despite the fact that in The Hunger Games book she is clearly intended to be a person of colour.)
Of course, there are valid personal reasons for feeling any casting is wrong. The most iconic characters are those that create fierce emotional attachments in their audience, whether readers or viewers, and any interpretation that veers from the one that they have is often subject to attack (it’s hard to remember now, but Daniel Craig’s casting as James Bond was opposed in many quarters for the reason that Bond simply couldn’t be blond). But the problem is conflating the personal and the public: this isn’t YOUR Hermione (or Bond, or Doctor, or whoever), so it’s the WRONG one, and outraged fans are even now combing the books to find mentions of Hermione being ‘pale’ to prove the author herself incorrect.
But the way the entertainment world works now is a constant cycle of rebooting and remaking – so even if you don’t approve of today’s casting, give it a few years and someone else you might like more will come along. And, as in the case of Craig, so often what seemed a controversial casting becomes so much the accepted version that the next recasting will be criticised for differing from it (it’s hard, for instance, to find even the most hardcore Marvel fanboy who objects to Samuel L Jackson’s casting as Nick Fury on the basis the character started out, in the original Marvel comics, as white). That might mean a particular interpretation of a character isn’t yours, but why shouldn’t it be someone else’s? Why shouldn’t a young black girl have as much right as a white one to fantasise about getting a letter from Hogwarts?
Such objections are even easier to understand when a role has been so closely identified with one particular performer – and the cast of the Harry Potter films seemed so perfect for their roles it is, indeed, difficult to imagine anyone else taking on those parts. But the British stage has – with some unfortunate exceptions – gained in recent years an excellent record for colour-blind casting, as anyone lucky enough to see Adrian Lester as Henry V or Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell Gywnn will attest. So why shouldn’t they do it here? Nobody is setting out to unseat the original cast, or replace the films (which will, inevitably, be remade at some stage anyway). It’s smart, interesting casting, not an attempt by the ‘PC brigade’ to trample on your treasured childhood memories – and if you treat it as such, you just need to grow the hell up.
Harry Potter and The Cursed Child will open at the Palace Theatre, London, on 7th June 2016