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Andrzej Lukowski: It took a Broadway tantrum to make me feel better about British theatre

Times Square. Photo: Andrey Bayda Times Square. Photo: Andrey Bayda
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Like many other minor theatre hacks, I’m sure, I recently allowed myself the brief, mad fantasy that I might apply for the recently vacated second string critic job at the New York Times. Move to the Big Apple! Do the reviews Ben Brantley doesn’t fancy! Enjoy actual, real, terrifying power over the fate of shows! Watch an absolute fuckton of musicals! Presumably get paid quite a lot!

I won’t apply, for two very pragmatic reasons: one, I’m fairly sure the only way my other half would permit me to move continents would be by way of a divorce; two, unless the editors of the NYT smoke a lot more crack than I get the impression they do, there is no way in a million years they would ever even consider hiring somebody so obviously unsuited to the job in terms of style, tone and knowledge of the US theatre (or should that be theater?) scene.

Still, I was enjoying the fantasy – maybe they’d see me as a breath of fresh air – until I came across a director-journalist spat so excruciatingly stupid it reminded me I am probably not temperamentally suited to the Great White Way.

Freelance Laura Collins-Hughes’ recent review of a revival of Big River – the 1980s musical adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – is in many ways a classic Times article. It’s long, articulate, informed, a bit dull. It is largely positive, but ends with a tentative, almost apologetically couched qualification – that she feels the musical’s racial politics strike a duff note in the present era.

It would be funny if it didn’t cheapen the entire theatre world

To which Jack Viertel, the artistic director of Encores! (the long-running programme that Big River was presented as part of) responded with an open letter of such monumental bellendery it would be sort of funny if you don’t feel that on some level the entire theatre world was cheapened by it.

To accurately reproduce its clangorous mix of bombastic condescension, hysterical white privilege and total overreaction to the mild tone of Collins-Hughes’ review would be to take up more space than I have, but it peaks with something that reads like the denouement of one of those episodes of Frasier where Niles accidentally get hammered: “Her piece is a significant humiliation for the paper, a stunningly amateurish piece of work, which, to use one of her not-very-well-chosen words, contains more than a whiff of condescension to what is almost inarguably America’s greatest novel.”

It is pretty much impossible to imagine one of our ADs going public with such a grievance when they still all wearily tolerate a Taliban-like minority of theatre critics (mostly Quentin Letts and that dude from the Spectator) who appear to actively dislike theatre.

In a sense, my problem isn’t that Viertel was so monolithically self-absorbed as to write it. It was more the fact that he didn’t get laughed out of town. Lord knows the British stage has a long way to go in terms of true diversity. But at least hard questions are now being asked of Trevor Nunn and Julian Fellowes and the Print Room, at least we’ve reached a stage where Andrew Lloyd Webber can acknowledge we could do better. Those examples reference casting controversies, which was not the issue with Big River, but it’s hard to believe any British AD or producer would possibly launch into a public rant suggesting the racial politics of his or her production were effectively above criticism, and if they did I would sincerely hope that the press would have the nads to crucify them for it.

Of course, you can’t judge a city’s theatre scene on the basis of one hissy fit, but the Viertel business is a reminder that They Do Things Differently Over There. I’m not going to waste anybody’s time by applying for the NYT job, but I hope whoever gets it can use the not inconsiderable power that will be bestowed on them to shake things up a little bit.

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