by LAUREN CODLING
AN ASIAN actress has spoken of her experiences of prejudice within the entertainment industry, as she prepares to star in the first ‘women of colour’ production of a Shakespeare play on a major UK stage.
Shobna Gulati will play the Duke of York in Richard II, the story of a king’s fall from power in England.
Directed by Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton, the play was described as “historic” when it was first announced for its entirely female ethnic minority cast and crew.
Gulati, who is known for her roles in TV soap Coronation Street and Victoria Wood’s sitcom Dinnerladies, has been in the industry for 35 years.
Throughout her extensive theatre and TV career, however, she has encountered a lack of opportunities for ethnic minorities.
“It’s been a tough journey,” she told Eastern Eye. “There have been times when I’ve not had the language to say, ‘actually what you’re doing is appropriating me, or you have got an unconscious bias’.”
Gulati said she realised that some doors were not open to her, but it did not deter her from her acting ambitions. Looking back, although she has no regrets, she wished she had more opportunities so she could have played roles which are unavailable to her now because of her age.
When Gulati started out in the industry, artists such as Andoh, Donna Croll and Sarah Lam were “pioneers” in the industry, but they were typecast in “ethnic” roles. “It wasn’t their fault they were in predominantly ‘ethnic’ roles,” Gulati said. “It was how they were cast and how they were perceived by some.”
However, Gulati admitted she was inspired when she watched British-Pakistani actor Art Malik play the role of Pip in Great Expectations. “When I saw him play a traditionally white character, I thought, ‘why isn’t this possible for all of us all of the time?’” she recalled.
Although Gulati has been part of diverse productions and companies in the arts, she claimed to have never seen such a “vast heritage” on stage as in Richard II.
“There are always one or two of us [ethnic minorities] in a play, or one of many from a specific area, from a specific background,” she said. “But in this, [although] we come from different cultural backgrounds, we are all from England.”
When co-director Andoh asked her to be part of the production, Gulati admitted she was stunned. “It was so magnificent what she was asking,” she said. “I knew I had to do it.”
Gulati revealed that playing the Duke of York – King Richard’s uncle and one of his most trusted advisors – was a refreshing experience. She had never previously had to learn “so many lines in [her] life,” and described the chance to play a role with a story arc as a “weird sensation”.
“For a woman of colour to have more than three sentences, to have a journey and a whole story arc of my own – I’ve never had this much story in my life,” she said.
Although the Lancashire-born star said she was sad that it has taken so long for such a diverse cast of women to be on an iconic stage, it was “exciting” that it was finally happening.
The play, which explores issues of division and identity, will be staged as Britain prepares to leave the EU on March 29. It feels particularly appropriate, Gulati said, as its themes coincide with the current state of the UK.
“My character says: ‘If you raise this house against this house, it will the woefullest division prove that ever fell upon this cursed earth’,” she said. “It feels very relevant.”
Richard II is showing at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, from Friday (22) to April 21.