Brecht and Casting

Brecht and Casting: A Reflection on The Personal History of David Copperfield

Armando Ianucci’s film The Personal History of David Copperfield is a retelling of Dickens’s novel. What is quite remarkable is the colourblind casting that pervades the film. The practice is often understood in one of two related ways. First, it is meritocratic: in a theatre repertoire full of white characters, the actor to play that character might not be racially identical, but is the best person to play the white character. Second, colourblind casting has a political role, deliberately offering the audience unexpected casting choices to highlight non-white talent and to reflect on the marginalization of actors of colour.

In Ianucci’s film, the acting is uniformly first rate, regardless of who is acting. The casting decisions, however, are significant. Several main, supporting and minor characters in the film are not white, but their ethnicity is not registered at all by the other characters. The film opens with a brown Copperfield reading from his autobiography on stage and we then witness his birth. Everything starts off unusually – will the film account for a brown actor playing the white lead? But it doesn’t take long before we realize that no-one will comment at all: class and gender will drive the story forward, not race.

Consequently, the film offers a utopian presentation of race relations, a provocative political vision of the future, set in the past. The film challenges the audience to consider how such a place might be reached.

Brecht, who may well have enjoyed the utopian element of the casting, would not, however, have advocated colourblind casting. He certainly proposed, in Buying Brass, that having a woman rehearse a man’s role would be productive. The implication is that a woman would see a man from the outside, pick up on the gestures and inflections that a man might take for granted, and bring them out in performance. By extension, we could imagine Brecht casting an actor of colour in a white character’s role to show the differences between the two.

Brecht’s casting choices were thus never ‘blind’, seeking to normalize difference, but conscious, with the intention of pointing out that which goes unspoken. Focused primarily on class, Brecht was more interested in this category than in gender relations, although the note on the woman rehearsing a man’s role indicates that gender was not necessarily a blindspot in his theatre practice. The importance of difference opened up the possibility of a critical engagement with difference, predicated on the social relations of the time. So, when the choreographer Pina Bausch restaged her Kontakthof production first with senior citizens and later with teenagers, she was exposing the differences between the courtship rituals of the piece and the dancers performing them. These casting decisions are all based on Verfremdung, making the familiar strange, in order to challenge the spectator to account for the strangeness.