Tuesday, 22 December 2015


There has been some brouhaha on the internet about the casting of the black actor Noma Dumezweni as the middle-aged incarnation of the fictional wizard Hermione Granger in the forthcoming theatre play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

When I thought about writing this I thought I was going to say that I wasn't sure you could definitely say that any of the people objecting to Dumezweni's casting were racist, though having looked at the comments on a Guardian article about it, it's clear that I was being optimistic and some of the people objecting to Dumezweni's casting definitely are massive racists.

But the point I wanted to make is that I still think the majority of objectors are doing so not because they are awful people, but because of the Insidious Cult Of Naturalism !!! that has come to define the screen.

No arts writers in the world sound cleverer than really clever – pref American – film critics, so I am not going to bang on about this too much when I am not a clever American film critic. But it strikes me that with advances in technology and technique, screen – especially the telly – has gone from a medium almost equally as 'artificial' as theatre – wherein it's basically impossible to pretend you're anywhere other than in a theatre – to something that aspires to simulate reality (ironically by using a whole heap of artificial devices to distract you from its contrivance).

There are obviously plenty of stylised (not to mention supernatural) films and dramas, and certainly it's difficult to wag one's finger at the screen versus the stage when it comes to ethnic diversity generally. You can't (as a rule) colourblind cast a TV show where ethnicity is of prime importance (but the same obviously goes for theatre).

But it's fascinating that in the last few decades, and for all its faults, the stage (or at least the subsidised mainstream and the commercial sector that dips from the same pool) has largely got over the idea that it really matters whether, say, the actors playing two family members are of the same ethnicity or whatever. Because it doesn't. There's not really a particularly advanced point in that – it actually just doesn't.

You can make casting decisions that are so weird it can distract the audience (though film is as bad as anything at casting bizarrely young women as the mothers of bizarrely old men) and you may well offend the odd old duffer/the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts, but as a rule 'we' have simply stopped giving a fuck.

I'm not totally sure why – I suspect increased diversity was visited upon theatre as both a generational thing and via the Arts Council (plus probably the need to find something else to do with Hamlet) and it just turned out the sky didn't fall in and now everyone's cool.

OBVIOUSLY it would be the height of foolishness to pretend British theatre is some sort of post-racial utopia. But you know. I saw Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Donmar the other night and all three leads were white so whatever, but one of the main supporting cast was a black actor playing a white actor's mum and you know – if it had been the telly then the recent furore over the BBC's The Musketeers would suggest that sections of a mainstream telly audience would be baffled at the presence of a black woman in a pretend 18th century France in which everyone speaks English. Probably political correctness would be deemed to have taken over the asylum over the same black woman MASQUERADING as the birth mother of a white woman. But at the Donmar – more radical than it used to be, but still pretty cosy – literally no-one gave a shit, because it didn't matter.

This seems to be threatening to turn into a rant about why theatre is awesomer than the tellybox, which wasn't really what I meant.

What I mean is that contemporary British theatre has to some extent 'come out the other side' in terms of colourblind casting. But I think it's unfair to call people who don't usually 'do' theatre racist for being confused over Noma Dumezweni's presence as Hermione when they have been brought up on an all-pervasive diet of naturalistic screen casting.

The one really obvious reason why Hermione is assumed to be white is that she has been aesthetically defined by being played by the white actor Emma Watson in the eight Harry Potter films. There are arguments as to why you could assume she was white for other reasons, but the fact is that if she'd been played by a black actor in the films, she would be generally assumed to be black. With Harry Potter and the Cursed Child being billed as the official new Harry Potter adventure, I think perhaps it is understandable that some folk raised on TV and films are taken aback as to the exact meaning of casting an actor who it would be difficult to pass off as an older Watson. A lot of people really fret about 'canon' and 'continuity' and I think on some level there is the worry that the casting of Noma Dumezweni somehow either invalidates the Emma Watson Hermione or – perhaps more likely – underscores the fact that Hermione is not a real person. I suspect these sort of worries are a bit like 'the spoiler' – a nagging bit of modern entertainment paranoia based upon one's anticipation of a piece of work ('what if I can't believe in this Hermione?') rather than one's actual experience of it.

Anyway, it's a great piece of casting and perhaps a really worthwhile one – if the play is good then an entire generation of folk unused to colourblind casting will see there's nothing to panic about, and a few high horses (broomsticks?) can be dismounted from on the other side, I hope.

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