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Adrian Lester lambasts ‘embarrassing’ lack of diversity in theatre

Adrian Lester in Othello at the National Theatre in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton Adrian Lester in Othello at the National Theatre in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Actor Adrian Lester has called on the industry to shame theatres and companies publicly that fail to reflect the cultural diversity of the UK.

He was speaking during an event at the National Theatre organised by diversity campaign group Act for Change, which also featured director Phyllida Lloyd and NT director Rufus Norris.

Lester said that both theatre and TV in the UK were “slowly being embarrassed” by the absence of diversity in the sector, including the under-representation of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, as well as the lack of opportunities for women and deaf and disabled artists.

He added it was important to shame theatres and companies that demonstrated poor diversity.

“It’s up to us to gather in groups and embarrass the sides of the industry that we can, to grill people like Rufus Norris on our stages, and to consistently, always, constantly ask for change. To be excellent in ourselves so we are that change,” he said.

Challenged on the issue, Norris refused to commit to enforcing quotas for the venue’s casting and employment, but added: “The last thing I’m saying is ‘no’. What I want is for this theatre to represent the country accurately, and if that’s the best way of doing it, then yeah – why not?”

Norris also conceded that he had a “shit record when it comes to disabled casting”, but revealed that he was working on two projects that would focus on disabled issues.

He later came under fire from Graeae artistic director Jenny Sealey for saying that, although the NT had to “reflect the country”, he also had to make sure “that our standard of excellence is as good as it can be”.

Sealey countered: “I want to cry because I am so fucking pissed off… what frustrates me more than anything is Rufus talking about ‘excellence’. It’s patronising to think that as a director, I don’t want excellence. But some of my deaf and disabled artists can’t get a foot in drama schools to get that training, so that they can dream to be excellent.”

Lloyd added that a way to improve cultural diversity was ensuring that more creatives from under-represented backgrounds had the top jobs in theatre.

She stressed: “We have to get the keys of buildings into the hands of [minorities]. Things have changed in the past 10 years. Women are running some significant, so-called ‘big hitter’ London theatres: Madani [Younis] is running the Bush, there are big changes everywhere. But white middle-class men need to take on associates who are not mirrors of themselves.”

Discussing how the public view the theatre industry, actor Cush Jumbo branded the Olivier Awards “a lie” that does not properly represent BAME talent in the sector.

“I remember it really hitting me in the face when I sat in the audience for the Oliviers and realising that I was one of the only brown people there,” she said. “And the reason I thought it was so unfair is because that’s not the industry I work in. It’s fake. It’s a lie. And yet, that is what is being shown to our brothers and our sisters and our children.”

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