Thrilling, moving, visceral – at some point you run out of words to explain the feelings that run through you after watching Michael Buffong’s stunning adaptation of King Lear.
I went to the showing at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre last night and loved pretty much every minute of it. The dark, modern soundscape, the ridiculously good set design, the racially diverse cast, the incredible acting – all of it combined to make this famous tale of a mad father and his warring offspring one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had.
Afterwards we, the audience, were granted the chance to remain behind for a Q & A session with the director and cast – an unexpected treat, and one that sparked plenty of engaging conversation as we listened to the likes of Don Warrington (the lead) and Michael Buffong (director) share nuggets about the production’s journey from conception to reality.
One particularly interesting point that was raised during the discussion was on the issue of race.
Michael Buffong is black, as is half the cast he used for this adaptation, a choice that factored into his decision to stage the play in the traditional period of pre-Christian Britain, rather than following the recent trend of placing Shakespeare’s works in contemporary settings.
‘I wanted for it to be that this royal family, the king and his daughters, could be black without it feeling like a thing,’ Buffong said.
It was a goal the play, for me, more than achieved. The viewing experience felt so immediate and vivid that the race of the characters became, well, not invisible exactly, but something else – transfigured. Like the meaning of skin colour had been translated into another reality, a kind of folklorish apocryphal context between here and fantasy. It made the production, somehow, feel both old and modern at the same time.
It got me thinking about how race is used in other storytelling media – film, television, literature etc.
When should the race of the actor, and therefore the character, be considered important to an authentic telling of a story, and when shouldn’t it be?
For example: When I see Idris Elba play the norse god, Heimdall – a traditionally white character – in Marvel’s Thor movies, it feels utterly right. Yet when I consider whether he should be the next James Bond, a character who is from an aristocratic Scottish background, I’m conflicted.
My question is why?
When is race relevant to the drama, and when is it not? Always? Never? Somewhere in between?
And what exactly governs whether a story – on screen or in print – can be said to have been authentically told?
In other words, when it comes to film, theatre, TV, books or even comics – should a character’s race matter at all?