The Royal Shakespeare Company last night claimed to have broken the mould by casting a black actor in the role of an English monarch for the first time in its history.
David Oyelowo, whose family came originally from Nigeria, will play the title role in Henry VI Parts I, II and III, when the company continues its monumental two-year run through Shakespeare's Histories - entitled This England - during the autumn.
His casting comes as the black British actor Adrian Lester prepares to play Hamlet, the most coveted classical role of all, for the director Peter Brook in Paris. Lester famously moved to America because of the dearth of roles for black actors in Britain.
Michael Boyd, who will direct Henry VI for the RSC, insisted he had not set out to make theatre history. "David really is a bit of a genius. It is colour-blind casting, his son will be white and there is no hint of illegitimacy."
But Hugh Quarshie, who became the first black Hotspur on a British stage when he took over from Timothy Dalton in Henry IV nearly 20 years ago for the RSC, said al though he was thrilled for Oyelowo, it was hardly revolutionary.
"This is not a defining moment for black actors," he said. "It is a lot easier to have non-traditional casting with Shakespeare. In fact, this seems only possible in the classics at all these days. The real problems for black actors come with modern plays and the cinema."
Quarshie, who starred in the recent Star Wars prequel, said that only when black actors routinely play Hamlet and Henry V will casting have become truly colour blind.
Oyelowo, 24, who joined the RSC last year, and is about to begin eight weeks of rehearsal, said he was delighted to land the role.
"Hopefully, it will pave the way for other actors. The more barriers come down, the better," he said.
The production will open at the Swan Theatre in Stratford in November and will move to the Young Vic in London next April.