‘Bridgerton’s’ approach to race and casting has precedent onstage

By Matt Wolf

As is so often the case, the theater got there first.

I’m referring to the approach to race and casting in “Bridgerton,” the sartorially splendid Netflix study in hyperactive Regency-era hormones that everyone’s talking about. Much has been made of the presence across the eight-part series of Black actors populating a Jane Austen-style landscape that is usually shown on screen as all white.

In fact, as London theater observers of a certain generation can attest, this has long been common practice onstage here, across a range of titles and historical periods. That’s been true whether it’s been part of Britain’s pioneering interest in colorblind casting or, as with “Bridgerton,” when productions have played with audience expectations about race to make a point.

Either way, the prevailing desire has been to fashion a theatrical world that speaks to the multicultural reality of the country. The idea behind casting a Black actor as a Maine villager (in “Carousel”) or a Viennese court composer (in “Amadeus”) isn’t documentary verisimilitude; rather, it is to make clear that such time-honored stories belong to all of us, regardless of race.

So it seems entirely logical that “Bridgerton” features Black talent — including regulars on the London stage — as nobles and royalty. Among them is Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte, a casting choice intended to reflect the view of some historians that King George III’s wife was biracial.

It is not long in “Bridgerton” before Simon Basset, an eligible Black aristocrat, announces himself with star-making swagger, and no shortage of naked flesh, in the sultry form of newcomer Regé-Jean Page. No less commanding is Black actress Adjoa Andoh, who arches a mean eyebrow as Simon’s mentor of sorts, Lady Danbury. (She led the cast of a 2019 production of “Richard II” at Shakespeare’s Globe that was performed entirely by actresses of color.)

Watching these performers swoop onto the screen, I was reminded of the comparable dazzle some decades back, when actress Josette Simon, who is Black, made her National Theater debut in a 1990 production of Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall,” playing Maggie, a character thought to have been based on Miller’s second wife, Marilyn Monroe. Gone was that play’s previously blonde-wigged heroine: Instead, director Michael Blakemore’s production raised new possibilities about the relationship between Miller’s male lead, the liberal-leaning lawyer Quentin, and the singing star and seductress who becomes his wife.

That show removed the play from the realm of gossip — that’s to say, how much was Miller revealing about the famously doomed actress to whom he was married? Suddenly, a comparatively minor piece from the playwright seemed both more substantial and more moving, and Simon, who went on to play Cleopatra for the Royal Shakespeare Company just a few years ago, enjoyed a deserved moment of glory.

The National Theater has kept pace with “After the Fall” in its casting ever since. Two years later, Nicholas Hytner’s revelatory revival of “Carousel” brought clarion-voiced Black actor Clive Rowe an Olivier nomination for his role as the sweet, fish-loving Mr. Snow; in 2003, another landmark Hytner staging, “Henry V,” put Black stage and screen star Adrian Lester in the title role.

That fiery modern-dress production, with its evocations of the Iraq War, reminded audiences that combat can be blind to skin color — so why shouldn’t kingship? Lester triumphed in the part, as he had across town at the Donmar Warehouse in 1996 when he became the first Black performer to play Bobby in a major production of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical “Company.”

These days, casting across the racial spectrum mostly passes without comment here. But it’s instructive to note the immediate retaliation, in 2018, when theater critic Quentin Letts, then writing for the Daily Mail, questioned the Royal Shakespeare Company’s casting of Leo Wringer, a Black actor, in a forgotten restoration comedy, “The Fantastic Follies of Mrs. Rich,” written in 1700.

“Was Mr. Wringer cast because he is Black?” Letts inquired rhetorically in his review. “If so, the RSC’s clunking approach to politically correct casting has again weakened its stage product.” The company’s artistic director, Gregory Doran, shot back a statement comparing Letts to “an old dinosaur, raising his head from the primordial swamp.”

Sometimes, as with a recent, and remarkable, “Amadeus” that featured vibrant Black actor Lucian Msamati in the role of Italian composer Antonio Salieri, the casting is colorblind, which means that the performer has been chosen irrespective of race. Elsewhere, as with the Young Vic’s “Death of a Salesman” in 2019, a conscious choice has been made — in that instance, to present the Loman family as Black to change our perspective on a familiar play.

“Bridgerton” looks at first as if it may be taking the first route, only to counter that assumption later on, when a surprise discussion among the characters steers the drama toward the second. “Color and race are part of the show,” the series’s creator, Chris Van Dusen, told The New York Times last month.

“Bridgerton” harks back to a vanished England of corsets and chastity, while nodding toward the diverse society of today. That dual focus — the ability, from its casting onward, to straddle two worlds at once — is something that has been long understood on the London stage. At a time when London playhouses remain closed, such memories are the stuff of enjoyable reflection. I only hope that, if the second season of “Bridgerton” that Netflix has hinted at ever arrives, I will be squeezing it in between visits to the theater.

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