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Mark Shenton: Civility is critical when it comes to debating the industry’s problems

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The current culture wars of civility, or the lack of it, stretches to the White House. Donald Trump’s election victory, and the discourse around it, sets an example to the world in the politics of rage and grievance. He amplifies it daily with attacks on the media, the FBI, the judiciary, other world leaders and Hillary Clinton. Now, many of Trump’s opponents no longer take the high road but join him in a rush to the bottom.

When White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Washington restaurant, Nesrine Malik wrote in the Guardian: “It has crystallised an American crisis: not quite a civil war but a civility war.”

The abandonment of these norms has reached the theatre world. Daily provocations, whether witting or unwitting, are creating new challenges. But for all the long-suppressed frustrations that are exposed, it is also a time to put new conversations and policies in place.

We’ve seen it already in the formal drafting of codes of conduct regarding inappropriate behaviour in rehearsal rooms and other behind-the-scenes areas of the theatre, following the public accusations made against Max Stafford-Clark and Kevin Spacey (among others).

Theatre is facing up to other pressing societal issues. Recently, when reviewing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, critic Quentin Letts asked: “Was [Leo] Wringer cast because he is black? If so, the RSC’s clunking approach to politically correct casting has weakened its stage product.”

The RSC responded, saying the review seemed “to demonstrate a blatant racist attitude to a member of the cast”. Wringer replied in a piece for the Times: “The suggestion Letts makes in his review, that the RSC, Arts Council England and directors are spreading a contagion in order to fulfil grant requirements, is insulting. On the contrary, I believe they are clear-eyed, as they look beyond the surface of an actor’s skin, positively aiming to reflect the diversity of the society in which we live.”

As reviewers whose business it is to give criticism, we should also be able to take it, and we are not immune from responsibility for the controversies we stir up.

I’ve had first-hand experience of this more than once. On live radio, I mistakenly mischaracterised the victims of a serial murderer when talking about the musical London Road, which of course was wrong. More intentionally, I took a public stand about no longer reviewing productions in which actors or other creatives are not paid per an Equity agreement or equivalent.

I still stand by the latter decision, though I do also appreciate that some creativity for actors could be stifled, and I’m personally sorry to have missed the opportunity to have revisited the musical The Biograph Girl at the Finborough, for example.

Controversy recently engulfed Philip Fisher, a writer for the online British Theatre Guide, when – for the second time in different reviews – he referred to the weight of an actor, even though it was not relevant to the role in either case. Fisher and the publication both apologised, and a valuable lesson in casual body-shaming has hopefully been learned.

But then Matt Trueman, who contributes to The Stage and other publications, expressed frustration with a column that the actor had written for the Guardian, declaring on Twitter:

This ignited a furious online debate. I’m not defending these sentiments, but there needs to be a sense of proportion. Twitter is hardly the most nuanced place for such bold assertions: a fuller response in a blog might have been less problematic.

It prompted the rather unedifying spectacle of artistic leaders piling in. Young Vic associate director Nadia Latif tweeted:

Vicky Featherstone, artistic director at London’s Royal Court, who has set her stall by counteracting bullying, replied: “The more I think about this, the more terrible rage I feel. Nicola Coughlan has been shamed twice by a reviewer and she responded with dignity, clarity and bravery, and is an inspiration. Then she’s fucking questioned for the fact that in choosing to go on stage she’s responsible for the way that she is described by others. The logical conclusion of this is that ‘she was asking for it’.”

It seems that critics are asking for it, too, if they try to engage with arguments like this. But we need to be able to talk about it properly – not be shamed into silence.

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