Tom Sutcliffe considers a classical theme

Colourblind versus colour-sensitive theatrical casting is again in the news.  Holywood star Ed Skrein backed out of playing a character in a new Hellboy movie about a virtuous demon because in the original comic strip his character was of mixed Asian parentage – and he is white with what he tweeted was a “mixed heritage family”. Casting Skrein was “white-washing”, it was said, and he was praised for recognising that and withdrawing.

Christians are comfortable with the Jewishness of Jesus and obviously realise that none of the representations of Jesus by European painters of sublime genius (or Margaret Tarrant whose Jesus picture with animals hung in my bedroom as a child) show him as he was. He is usually a nice-looking human being who belongs where the image will hang. Few are like Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece in Colmar showing the horror of crucifixion. What did Jews look like anyway? The representation of Jews by Nazis was nothing to make a European proud. Hellboy is a magical fantasy film in which impossible things happen, which film makes seem miraculously natural. The human races concerned (of which Hellboy may or may not be a representative) are incidental. Cinema entertainment is very often politically correct escapist fantasy for profit.

Religions have had many ways of portraying the divine. Christians destroyed representations of Zeus and other gods when Christianity became the state religion in the Roman Empire. Iconoclasm is part of our story. Many though not all Muslims regard representation of living creatures as blasphemous usurping of the divine role of creation: one of the great dividing red lines. Theatre is not cinema – though few grasp how their differences relate to translation from an original (in religions sacred) language into what people readily understand. No Muslim reformation has yet subjected the Koran to such extreme creative stress tests. There, authority still rests in Arabic, whereas the Bible has passed through Greek and Latin on the path to readily digested vernacular.

Representation is always complex and vital. Music Theatre Wales, a well-run small-scale touring opera company based in Cardiff which has frequently performed at the Linbury Theatre in the bowels of the Royal Opera House, should have ended its current tour of Peter Eötvös’s opera The Gold Dragon – about the dire privations asylum-seekers and refugees can suffer- with a performance at the Hackney Empire (the Linbury being closed for rebuilding). But suddenly a storm arose, and the Hackney performance was cancelled by the theatre’s management because the cast of five singers play three Chinese characters as well as many white and Asian roles in the 25 various doublings they undertake. A half-Japanese half-German-Jewish woman from Watford running an “East Asian” theatre company, who has become a potent agitator against so-called “yellowface” casting, saw her chance to follow up the row she created at the Print Room Notting Hill last January against Howard Barker’s play The Depths of Dead Love with its characters from a Chinese fable.

The production of Eötvös’s opera at the 2016 Buxton Festival was much praised, and in April it went to Tongyeong in South Korea. It has also been seen this autumn in Cardiff, Birmingham, Basingstoke, Bangor, and Snape. Opera – contrary to progressive holy writ (in the form of a Guardian leader comment and a statement from the performers’ union Equity) – has no problem whatsoever with “diversity”. But it requires very particular vocal and musical skills. In 1962 I saw Grace Bumbry’s colour-blind casting at Bayreuth as Venus, and Leontyne Price’s at Salzburg as Leonora opposite Franco Corelli – not to mention Sir Willard White, George Shirley, Jessye Norman, Shirley Verrett, and about 100 African-American opera stars listed online. In German opera companies Japanese, Chinese and Korean chorus members and soloists are everywhere – alongside singers of every race from all round the world of every race. There is also no shortage of pianists, violinists and conductors from eastern countries. In the philistine UK we have no theatre or opera ensemble companies. But we do have campaigners about irrelevancies like whether white artists skilled enough to play Brechtian-style opera may represent orientals as well as others. The Ethopians in the recent dreadful English National Opera Aida are all played by fine black artists.

The underlying issue is the nature of theatre itself – which is to stretch the imagination and offer a learning as well as an entertaining process. The truth-telling trick of cinema has never been much part of theatre – as the Prologue in Henry V so deftly explained to the groundlings (and all). My son Walter now an opera director was at school and close friends with Chiwetel Ejiofor who made his first move towards stardom as Othello with the National Youth Theatre.

But of course it is not and should not be the case that Shylock has to be acted by a Jew – though the theatre in the UK has many such, nor that certain roles must be reserved for black-skinned actors because using make-up and pretending to be different from what you are is offensive. The theatre is about masks and they come in many forms. No doubt it is good to be sensitive about this whole area of discernment. But if it is not problematical for Henry V to be played by a black-skinned actor it is surely unjust to condemn any of the old theatrical short-cuts. Acting is not about doing things but about being the role you are – and that is achieved by the force of personality and the ability to represent character from the inside out. Casting is a part of the interpretative artform. We need to see Jesus where we can least easily recognise him.

Opera is different from spoken “legitimate” theatre in that it depends on the expressive and effective power of the singing voice far more than on the superficial illusion of where someone may have come from and how they can happen to be what they are where they are. Opera is a miraculous expression of what we can hear and feel far more than what we see – even though the contextual location of the events depicted is a crucial part of its power. I shall miss The Golden Dragon regrettably and I deeply resent the bullying misrepresentation by a semi-oriental campaign of the way opera is and has been working for all.  Preventing a performance is as bad as refusing to listen to somebody because you think you already know and reject what you expect them to say. The message is not who or what they are. The message matters because you do not know in advance what your imagination will turn it into as it becomes part of you.