So many people still feel Shakespeare isn’t for them – I want that to change

Alexandra Afryea who plays Lady Macbeth in Proteus' upcoming production (Credit: D&M Photography)

Earlier this year, on a supremely hot and stuffy London morning I sat in a room full of incredibly talented women and laughed until my face hurt. We were casting a female actor for our production of Macbeth. They were all shapes, ages and sizes; I was putting together an ensemble and therefore had no specific physical ‘type’ in mind, the one thing that united them, other than identifying as female, was that they were all women of colour.

I had already cast the rest of the ensemble from a group of actors I had been working with on an R&D project, looking at the issues faced by first-generation British-born children of immigrants. The conversations we had in the rehearsal room were sometimes about ethnic heritage, but more often they were about class, parenthood, career pressures and family expectation.

Mary Swan in rehearsals for Macbeth
Mary Swan in rehearsals (Credit: D&M Photography)

When the project fell through, I knew I wanted to find another project for this group of performers. We needed one more member of the ensemble to complete the team, and in this hot space filled with laughter, I was more than spoilt for choice. I am a white woman from a South London working-class upbringing and for me, Shakespeare has always been the anomaly. I shouldn’t have loved the verse as much as I did at school, it’s not supposed to be for the likes of me.

I’m still shocked by how many people – how many actors feel that way, and in particular BAME actors. The talented women laughing in the audition room all spoke about how unusual it was to be in a room exclusively full of others from ethnic minority heritage, how even more unusual it was to be auditioning for Shakespeare.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by that, but it’s easy to become complacent, to feel in the Arts there are no barriers or exclusions.  We need to change the optics of theatre at every level, defiantly cast diversely in the classical canon until it becomes laughable that it was ever an issue. If we do not we deprive future generations of some of the greatest work in literature, it is not for us to decide who is represented on stage, it is for us to reflect back our world; because only then can we truly change it.

Mary Swan is the artistic director of the award-winning theatre company Proteus. Proteus’ new adaptation of Macbeth sets it during the 1987 stock market crash. The ethnically diverse cast has created a highly physical, major new interpretation of a classic to draw in new audiences.

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