Artistic director Erica Whyman speaks up on the racist comments after the performance’s cast was announced.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s upcoming production of Much Ado About Nothing, the bard’s classic comedy of love and divided loyalties, will take on an Afrofuturist style, and star an all-black cast. This has led to some backlash, and comments which the company described as “ignorant, hurtful,” and “racist”.
Developed by pioneers such as the writer Samuel R. Delany, Afrofuturism is an artistic movement which explores African culture in a science-fiction style. After the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Erica Whyman decided it would be pertinent to apply this style to Shakespeare’s work. She felt these celebrations of African and African-diaspora culture were hugely important, for “not just representing black culture on our stage but actually trying to properly understand what has been missing from our cultural world”.
Adapting Shakespeare to new styles and environments is often a popular move, bringing the plays to exciting new directions and audiences. However, some purists feel that any attempts to modernise Shakespeare do a disservice to the original work. Sohrab Ahmari’s 2017 book The New Philistines was largely written as a riposte to a London production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he felt was aggressively modernised and unfaithful to Shakespeare’s words.
When it comes to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s diversity, this has often gone beyond a civil artistic dispute. In 2018, the Sunday Times accused their production of Romeo and Juliet of being “garishly diverse”. The Company released a statement saying that the article “demonstrates clear prejudice and devalues people,” and the Times apologised. Unfortunately, the recent production received a similar response from some quarters, with racist attacks on the black cast.
Whyman said that this response “comes from a place of ignorance about what theatre is and what story-telling is”. She said: “The idea that Shakespeare’s plays belong to one group and not to another is nonsense.” Indeed, the racist response shows a lack of knowledge about Shakespeare, who showed a clear interest in African culture, especially in his play Othello. Shakespeare is a writer who can be appreciated by many different styles and cultures, and the Company should be lauded for bringing his work to new horizons.