LONDON — British manners being what they are, most recipients of London’s Olivier Awards tend to eschew Sally Field or Cuba Gooding Jr.-esque brouhaha in favor of appearing as grown-up and professional as possible.
The three young “Billy Elliot” leads sharing the award for best actor in a musical at the Feb. 26 ceremony had no such career-minded inhibitions. And what’s more, their infectious jubilation was shared by the entire room.
“Billy Elliot” snagged Oliviers for musical, actor(s), choreography and sound — only a few days after it was announced that two of the new actors to play Billy in the alternating cast will be non-white.
Director Stephen Daldry described 12-year-old Matthew Koone as being “as Mancunian as they come and a Chinese kid.” Later in the year, 11-year-old black Brit Layton Williams will join the list.
The business of color-blind casting is rare in U.K. musical theater but not unknown. Black actor Gary Wilmot successfully took over in “Me and My Girl” — for three years — with no script changes. Yet when black ex-“EastEnders” actress Michelle Gayle played Belle in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the theater received letters of complaint along the racist lines of “How can you expect me to explain to my granddaughter that Beauty is black?”
Daldry is unfazed by the possibility of unsettling racists. “You can’t legislate against bigotry,” he remarked with a shrug. “These kids have all struggled. They’ve all been the only boy in their dance classes. These two have also survived as the only Chinese or black boy there. I find their achievement terribly moving.”
Daldry’s determination in the face of potential criticism stands in stark contrast with the worrying change of heart by New York Theater Workshop’s James Nicola, who has postponed the transfer of Alan Rickman‘s Olivier-nominated London production of “My Name Is Rachel Corrie.”
The solo show, a success in two SRO Royal Court runs in 2005, draws together the diaries and emails of the articulate, idealistic 23-year-old from Olympia, Wash., who joined the Intl. Solidarity Movement in Gaza in 2003, and died beneath an Israeli bulldozer.
The show was artistically strong enough for Nicola to have done the deal — NYTW’s computer ticketing system was advertising tickets, the production team’s flights were booked — but his reversal after consulting various Jewish community leaders seems, at best, naive. No minority community that sees itself under threat is ever going to grant script approval to a play enshrining a dissenting voice.
Nicola maintains that NYTW’s hesitation concerning the play was dictated in large part by the challenge of pulling together the New York run in only two months.
“As we went through the process, we lost confidence that, in the short time we had, we could to the best of our abilities keep Rachel Corrie’s voice heard above the din of other voices attempting to use the play for their own political purposes,” Nicola tells Variety. “We were never for a second concerned about the response from people who actually sat in the theater and experienced the work — the strength of the piece speaks for itself.”
That fails to explain why they went so far toward production before pulling back. But Nicola insists, however, that the NYTW run eventually will go ahead.
“Our commitment to the project has never wavered,” he says. “We asked a rather routine question, or so we thought, of our colleagues: Could we move to a later date and find the time for us to do our job better? That question has been interpreted by them as censorship. It bewilders us and disappoints us.”
Disregarding the pressurized availabilities of the director, actor and theater — or, indeed, the unlikely relaxing of surrounding political sensitivities — quite how long that process will take remains unclear. What is clear is that his theater is entering the arena not of censorship but self-censorship. Silencing debate by caving in to potential bigotry from those who haven’t seen the work is very dangerous.
What other topics does the theater consider too risky on the grounds that they might inflame people who merely hear about them? And will politicized writers like NYTW regular Caryl Churchill or David Hare be happy to have their work seen there again?
Meanwhile, Off Broadway’s loss for now is the West End’s gain. From March 28-May 7, the planned Gotham dates, producers David Johnson and Virginia Buckley will present the show at London’s Playhouse Theater.