Black actors in Shakespeare? Hardly a revolutionary concept. African-Americans were in Richard III in New York in 1821. Nevertheless, there has been more than a ripple of interest in the Royal Shakespeare Company's decision to cast David Oyelowo in the title role of Henry VI, which opens in Stratford-upon-Avon in November and transfers to London next April. It's the first time the RSC has cast a black actor as an English monarch. "It is color-blind casting," says Michael Boyd, who will direct the three-part production. He adds, presumably in case anyone thinks the company is attempting to rewrite English history, "His son will be white and there is no hint of illegitimacy."
Hugh Quarshie, the black actor who played Hotspur in Henry VI for the RSC in 1983, later insisted that Oyelowo's casting was "no big deal." Writing in the Guardian, Quarshie observed, "Henry VI is not ultimately about Henry VI. It is about power, ambition, the grip of one generation on another." Quarshie also recalled that black actors have been appearing regularly on the classical stage in the U.K. since the 1960s. He might also have mentioned that another area where race is not an issue is children's theatre. Here actors of all races regularly play Greek gods and Icelandic princesses, and no one bats an eyelid. (Young children tend not to be aware of racial difference until adults point it out.)
A real breakthrough would be routine, non-traditional casting in films and television, but Quarshie thinks it will be a long time coming. Nothing more has been heard of a recent proposal to extend the Race Relations Act to include the entertainment industry. At present, it is still legal to place an advertisement for a "white actor," and it's hard to imagine the law being rewritten in the foreseeable future. Too many white executives would recoil in horror at the prospect of being required legally to cast black actors as Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale.
Raoul Hits London
Composer Jed Feuer flew into London Sept. 23 for the British premiere of his musical Eating Raoul. Adapted by Feuer, Boyd Graham, and Paul Bartel from Bartel's 1982 film, the show bombed at New York's Union Square theatre in 1992. In London it ran at the Bridewell, which specializes in musical revivals. Unfortunately, the movie is almost unknown here and, although New York-born director Rick Jacobs anglicized the show, it generally bemused Londoners.
At the performance I caught, however, the audience gradually warmed to the outrageous theme of a puritanical couple who murders "perverts" for profit. Feuer's score is more melodic than much of the stuff currently in the West End, and Graham's witty lyrics drew big laughs. My feeling was that it was only bad timing that prevented Eating Raoul from becoming another Little Shop of Horrors. After the show, Feuer confirmed to me that, back in 1992, the likes of Mike Nichols and Michael Bennett assured him that "this is the next Little Shop of Horrors." But the New York critics decreed otherwise. "It was one of the worst nights of my life," Feuer confessed. "They acted like we'd murdered their parents. Why did they hate it so much? It's a fun show."
It is indeed, and after its disastrous New York opening, it found its audience, not only throughout the U.S., but also in Germany, where seven productions are now running. Feuer declared he was "very, very pleased" with the London version. It came, he said, as a relief after "the Los Angeles production, which was—can I say this?—terrible." Anglophile Bartel always wanted to see the show tried in London. Before his death earlier this year, he knew his dream was about to be realized.
Porter's Gay Divorce Returns
A much older flop musical, Cole Porter's Gay Divorce, first seen on Broadway in 1932, played to big audiences of nostalgia lovers in London in September. Two Sunday night concert performances, part of Ian Marshall Fisher's Lost Musicals Series, filled the 1,394 seat Palace Theatre. It was the first time the show had played London since 1933, when it managed 180 performances, also at the Palace.
The romantic fluff, with book by Dwight Taylor, is set entirely in England, where Mimi (played here by the delightful Janie Dee) is attempting to secure her divorce with the aid of a professional co-respondent. The plot is quite saucy for its day, and I wonder how the Lord Chamberlain, then the UK's theatre censor, reacted to the hilarious Act I curtain line, "Bring your own pajamas."
Porter only managed one song hit from the score, the classic "Night & Day", although another, "The Continental" (not by Porter), was introduced in the film version. The stage score was mostly cut for the film, and no wonder. Songs like "What will become of our England?" and "I Still Love the Red, White & Blue" are awfully irrelevant to the proceedings. Still, Brit audiences liked a line in the former, "What will become of our Prince of Wales?" And there were the original Hans Spialek orchestrations to enjoy, as rendered by the BBC Concert Orchestra.
Julie Wilson, who played Bianca in the London production of Porter's Kiss Me, Kate in 1951, introduced the Sept. 17 performance. (She was in town to play in cabaret at the Pizza on the Park.) Next up in the series is One Touch of Venus, which plays the Royal Opera House in December.
Men Without Pants
Yes, I am going to mention Puppetry of the Penis, but not because the scandal of its production has rocked the West End (it hasn't), but because my spies backstage have revealed secrets about the production not revealed elsewhere.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe hit, in which Australians Simon Morley and David Friend mould their genitals to resemble hamburgers, mollusks, and more besides (the Loch Ness Monster is particularly impressive), was snapped up for the West End's Whitehall Theatre by David Johnson, who relishes a bit of controversy (he co-produced Shopping and Fucking.) Now it transpires that the transfer very nearly didn't happen. The show's advertisement, headed "Two men, two dicks, no pants," was refused by the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express.
Representatives from Westminster City Council caught a preview, and almost certainly would have banned the opening, but for a technicality. Entertainments such as the Penis show are subject to strict licensing arrangements, which have previously applied to paid performances by strippers and porn stars. But the Penis show is not an entertainment, it's a play, and as such it's protected by the Theatres Act of 1968. What constitutes a play? It's debatable. All we know is that, after Edinburgh, Johnson took the Oz boys in hand (sorry), gave them "characters" to play, and made them learn a "script." Depending on one's viewpoint, thank God for/damn the Theatres Act
The Donkey Show, from New York's El Flamingo, is another Edinburgh hit now playing in London. It opened Sept. 18 at West End hotel the Hanover Grand...The Perrier Award for best comedy on the Edinburgh Fringe went this year to American comic Rich Hall. He plays the Perrier "Pick of the Fringe" show at Her Majesty's Theatre on Sundays in October...Jessica Lange stars in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, which opens at the Lyric Theatre, Nov. 21. Director is Robin Phillips, returning to the West End from Canada for the first time since 1981.
"The Mystery of Charles Dickens is just the sort of title to entice hordes of innocent Americans into the Comedy, in the belief that some secret about the great Victorian is to be revealed"—critic Nicholas de Jongh on Simon Callow's new one-man show.