One of the things I used to look forward to on London visits was the theatre; but too often now the experience feels like subsidising an experiment in diversity engineering.
On this visit, we give Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution a go. The venue – the 1922 London County Council chamber – is marvellous and the seats much more comfortable than in a theatre. And careful attention has been given to getting the 1925 period detail right. Except that suddenly a three-man police team enters and two of them are black. Really? In 1920s Britain? This is the new world of ‘non-traditional casting’ where actors are chosen without considering race or gender – or, it seems, historical plausibilty.
Other recent cases are the National Theatre production of Amadeus, in which the Italian composer Salieri was played by black actor Lucian Msamati, and Globe theatre director Michelle Terry’s casting of herself as Hamlet. And now we have Foxtel’s ‘reimagining’ of Picnic at Hanging Rock, which casts one of the schoolgirl characters as an aboriginal. Not only is there no basis in Joan Lindsay’s novel for this decision, it also completely misses her point that institutions like Appleyard College tried to recreate England in isolation from the strange world of Australia. It is highly unlikely that in 1900 an obviously indigenous girl would have attended such a school.
You get the sense that we’re supposed to nod approvingly at the commitment to diversity such casting decisions show while not dwelling on tricky questions of plausibility. But is it equally OK for white actors to play black characters? Apparently not. When Sky Arts chose white actor Joseph Fiennes to play Michael Jackson, an avalanche of outrage implying racism forced the show’s cancellation.
So should we expect that famous figures other than Salieri, for example the Queen or the late Rev. Ian Paisley, might be played by, say, Chinese or Maori actors? We have our answer in the Old Vic’s casting of the black Beverley Knight as suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in a new musical opening soon.
Outside the theatre world, the preoccupation in London of course is Brexit, now just seven months away. Theresa May, having all but surrendered her previous ‘red lines’ in the Chequers plan, is now at war with many in her party. Even if the EU agreed to her plan, she’d struggle to get parliamentary approval. The mood among Tories is that it was a mistake to put May, a Remainer, in charge of Brexit and that Boris Johnson may yet get his big opportunity. Polling suggests he’s the most popular leader among the rank and file and the only leading Tory who would be competitive against Corbyn.
One of May’s many problems is scepticism about whether she is really a conservative. The armed forces and police are seriously short of money, but she refuses to reconsider Britain’s ring-fenced, vast overseas aid expenditure of 0.7 per cent of GDP. And her government has appointed as Director of Public Prosecutions the UK’s ‘terror watchdog’ Max Hill, who attracted wide derision for saying Isis fighters with British nationality were ‘simply naive’ – only 40 out of 400 returnees have been prosecuted.
Britons would probably be surprised that Australians complain about London’s heat – ‘the Poms can’t do aircon’. Indeed, the Tube remains a particular shocker in warm weather – the Mirror recently reported that the Central Line often exceeds the EU’s 30 degree legal limit for transporting farm animals. So it was a treat to visit the British Library’s exhibition James Cook: the Voyages – for the crisp air conditioning. Was this a nod to New World visitors? No, they needed aircon to care for the precious exhibits. It encouraged a lingering examination of the displays which, inevitably, highlight the ‘controversial’ nature of the great navigator.
When driving from the continent to London, I’m always struck by the absence of welcome signs when we reach Britain. When you emerge from Eurotunnel after leaving Britain you pass a ‘Welcome to France’ sign; the equivalent on the UK side is ‘Drive on the Left’. My wife, who is half-English, tells me this is just British aversion to insincerity. The UK’s population, 65 million, is 7 million more than in 2000. In Australian terms, Britain is geographically smaller than our most densely-populated state, Victoria, with ten times its population.
One of the consequences is still sky-high property prices. Estate agent spivs and crooks abound. One is currently advertising a tiny West End flat on a short lease for the best part of A$1 million whose title doesn’t include about a third of the property, including the bathroom – and their advertisement doesn’t make that clear.
In June, a memorial service was held on the anniversary of the murder by Islamists of eight people around London Bridge. The victims included two young Australian women, knifed to death by the monsters. One of the heroes was policeman Wayne Marques, who was at the scene and was seriously injured while bravely trying to fight off the terrorists armed with just a truncheon. It beggars belief that, given the gravity of the threat Britain faces, not all its police carry firearms.
Douglas Murray, Associate Editor of the UK Speccie and author of last year’s brilliant Strange Death of Europe, who visits Australia this month, is pessimistic that much can be done about the continued threat. As he says, in accepting mass Muslim migration, Europe seems to have done a deal: a wider range of cuisines and cheaper labour with the downside of more gang rapes and terrorist murders.