Patrick West

British theatre needs to re-examine its politics

British theatre needs to re-examine its politics
The Stage Door sign at the Old Vic theatre in London (photo: iStock)
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Dame Helen Mirren has called for a 'huge investment' in the arts, warning that the UK's theatres are only weeks from collapse. The theatre, she said on the Today programme, is central to the 'identity of our nation' and 'embedded in what it means to be British.'

With live performances banned since lockdown, most people will share her concern about the future of Britain's theatres. But the implication that theatre is intrinsic to the national character doesn't ring true today.

The only genres of live acting that have widespread popular appeal in Britain are musicals and pantomime. Otherwise, theatre is a decidedly middle-class affair these days, and a left-wing one to boot (with rare exceptions such as the playwright Tom Stoppard). Often this left-wing dominance of the acting fraternity has an unpleasant side, as shown by Laurence Fox’s ordeals and the recent airing of Maxine Peake’s politics.

Theatre in this country is therefore a minority interest, which is why Mirren's plea is unlikely to garner much sympathy, especially among conservatives. If British theatre really wants saving it should re-examine its politics.

For example, there are many people who would like to see a Shakespeare play set in the relevant era with male parts played by men – or at least in Elizabethan or Jacobean times, with female parts played by young men. But these plays are the exception today, with directors often giving male roles to women instead. It's annoying, distracting and incoherent, not least when the gender pronouns in the play aren't altered in accordance with the sex of the actor. This kind of meddling often leads to theatre’s cardinal sin: it breaks the suspension of disbelief.

Take the RSC's acclaimed 2016 production of Hamlet, which also aired a couple of weeks ago on BBC4. Set in sub-Saharan Africa, the whole play was transferred to a different setting with its assigned gender roles remaining intact. All of the main characters were black, and the story remained coherent (with Paapa Essiedu rightly praised for his superb performance as Hamlet). It remained a story about an angry youth mourning the death of his father and seeking revenge: a story for people irrespective of their gender, race, culture or nationality.

With one exception. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were played by white actors. The suspension of disbelief was shattered temporarily, as you realised the director was trying to make a point about racism, by imagining a world in which the white man is subservient to his black master, a world in which the white man is not taken seriously. All of a sudden you were no longer immersed in the story, and merely watching actors in a play in a theatre.

Earlier this year, Dominic Cavendish of the Daily Telegraph wrote that Shakespeare was in danger of being 'cancelled' by a 'woke' generation of artists and theatregoers who are intent on a diverse, gender-flipping casting of a playwright who was the 'product of a patriarchal, Anglo-centric, proto-colonial, age', and 'that a traditionally cast production is now a rarity, ever more unthinkable'. I'm inclined to agree. If I want to enjoy Shakespeare these days, I will read him or watch old films and RSC television productions from the 1970s on YouTube.

Shakespeare plays are only the most obvious casualty of director tampering. Two years ago, in a West End production of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, the Duchess of Berwick was played by the white actress Jennifer Saunders, while her biological brother Lord Lorton was played by Joseph Marcell, who is black. While the play received rave reviews, it still had an inherent incoherence at its heart.

Of course, diverting from the original text of a play can work, such as when Glenda Jackson first played King Lear at the Old Vic in 2016. But this wasn't manifest politicking: Jackson, a rather masculine actress anyway, is held in high repute. The situation is very different now, with divergence from original texts and blatant left-wing politics being the norm in British theatre.

So yes, let's save our theatres. But in return theatres should put on plays for everyone, that aren’t just vehicles for woke agitprop.

Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)