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Andrzej Lukowski: Is Hytner being cut too much slack over Bridge Theatre programming?

Hytner and Starr's Bridge Theatre has announced its first season of shows
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The reactions to the inaugural season at Nicholas Hytner’s new Bridge Theatre have been a splash varied but generally positive: on the more rapturous side, the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish suggested that Hytner’s new gaff might pose a serious threat to his old one, the National Theatre; on the more sceptical side, Exeunt’s Alice Saville mused on whether London really needed any more straight-down-the-line theatres, but did describe the programming as “(gently, cautiously) forward-looking”.

The most notably progressive thing about the announced programming is that half of the eight shows are by women. This is, in fact, a slight fudge: the actual first season consists of three plays by men: Richard Bean’s Young Marx, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Barney Norris’ Nightfall.

But it seems fairly clear if you’ve read Hytner’s memoir Balancing Acts that he was stung by accusations that he didn’t programme enough new work by women, and if it’s not 100% clear when the announced commissions from Lucinda Coxon, Nina Raine, Sam Holcroft and Lucy Prebble will actually play, it’s obvious that gender parity has been a big consideration.

The other notable thing about the season is its stark, glaring whiteness: as far as I can see, there is only a single BAME artist mentioned anywhere at all in any capacity with any of the shows except for Miguel Altunaga, the Cuban dancer choreographing Prebble’s Carmen Havana.

This has been noted in various articles and prompted a measure of complaint on social media, but as far as I can tell it’s not caused a great stir. Is it as easy as saying that the people who have praised the Bridge simply don’t care? That media commentators – white media commentators, obvs – who bang on about diversity at other times simply aren’t committed to the idea enough to give a shit when faced with a solid season of big names and the fig leaf of gender parity among the writers?

Is commercial theatre ever going to change? Only if it’s forced to by commercial necessity, or because the people making it want to change it

I mean, on some level, the answer has to be ‘yes’: some pretty right-on commentators have pretty much given Hytner a free pass. (There’s also surely the assumption that Hytner will have relatively diverse casts – at present we only know a couple of lead actors).

But the stark truth is that just as there is little commercial pressure on a commercial theatre to programme work by female playwrights, so there is little commercial pressure to commission BAME playwrights, or cast BAME leads. Should Hytner be better than this? Sure, but the fact the Bridge is “(gently, cautiously) forward-looking” for a commercial theatre has perhaps done enough, in most people’s eyes, to earn him a pass until we’ve seen more of his programming.

Is commercial theatre ever going to change? Only if it’s forced to by commercial necessity, or because the people making it want to change it. Should Hytner be held to the same scrutiny he would have been at the NT? Maybe not, but he is looked up to as a leader and there are responsibilities that come with that.

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