King Lear: A World Where Race Doesn’t Matter?

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 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?

 

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4 thoughts on “King Lear: A World Where Race Doesn’t Matter?”

  1. Now I would love to see this live play and what a treat to have the question and answers time afterward. You post some pretty thought provoking questions. I could not help but think of the lasted movie I seen where you could not seperate the race issue, somewhat. Hidden Figures is my all time favorite movie recently, even my husband liked it. Race could not be taken out of it really because of one scene repeated several times, the white only bathrooms. I hope it was really true that the boss, a white man tore down that sign so those black women did not have to walk a mile to pee. But there was a deeper issue, men did not think women, black or white had the ability to do higher math like a man and if they did it was kept hidden. So I am in all three thinking, Always? Never? Somewhere in between? I got lost about the race issue by the end of the movie and was wanting to stand up a and shout, yes, yes, yes for those brave women, black and white who braved all that came at them to just do what God gifted them to do. When I think of the older TV series, really a first for TV on race, there would be no way you could take race out of it. Race has to matter but never in my eyes before heart issue. I watch a documentary on India and how the British ruled them for years, broke my heart. In Papua New Guinea it was the Japanese that almost destroyed the whole race. In Bolivia, the upper class ruled the lower…taking their land and crops and women when ever they wanted. Until Jesus comes there will be wicked hearts that want to rule over others, pride will rise up and scream, I am better then you, you are nothing. Race is woven through the fabric of our lives since the beginning/ I loved this statement and on it I would go see this play…. 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.

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    1. ‘Race has to matter but never in my eyes before heart issue.’

      ‘there will [always] be wicked hearts that want to rule over others, pride will rise up and scream, I am better then you, you are nothing.’

      I think there is just so much truth in these two statements. So many times issues get conflated by ideology, politics or whatever else. People say religion is wrong because it’s caused so many wars, or that white people are bad because they’ve persecuted or subjugated minorities in the past, or whatever else. But the reality revealed to us through history is that human beings have always had this lust for power. To take more than they need in order to dominate those they perceive to be different to them in some way – whether that difference is racial, ideological, political or whatever else, what it really boils down to, like you say, is a heart issue.

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    2. And I really, really, really wanna see Hidden Figures. Every person I know who has viewed the film tells me how great it was. It’s incredible that a story like that can be based on true events. I know this sounds corny but, to me, the stories of how women have maintained their dignity in encountering these issues of prejudice down through the centuries are so incredibly inspiring in so many ways.

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  2. Take a few dollars from your extra job and a few hours and make a point of seeing Hidden Figures…..You will fall in love with the courage these women in this true story has…God give us this kind of courage for this old world will not get better according to the Word…

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