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Mark Shenton: The culture wars are leaving their mark on theatre

Romola Garai and Lara Rossi in The Writer at the Almeida. Photo: Manuel Harlan Romola Garai and Lara Rossi in The Writer at the Almeida. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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We are living in culturally complicated times and are constantly having to re-calibrate some of the apparent certainties we’ve lived with uncritically until now. Not before time, some might say.

Just this week, the Almeida premiered Ella Hickson’s new play The Writer, which looks at the part the existing theatre culture plays in all of this, as a female writer wrestles with her male director over the direction of her play – and the role her gender might have played in whether or not she’s even given the opportunity to have a play put on.

As Natasha Tripney noted in her review for The Stage: “On occasion, it seems to be addressed directly to the Almeida, where work that looks and sounds a certain way dominates. There’s even a line about gratuitous rape scenes in theatre (hello Rupert Goold’s Richard III) that made me want to cheer.” In another deeply meta-moment, a woman talking to a theatre director directly references Laura Wade’s Posh – and the director is being played by Sam West, who is Wade’s real-life partner.

And as I noted in my own review of the play: “In the midst of a climate where both behaviour and the words we speak and write are being rigorously policed and interrogated, this restless, relentless play has serrated teeth with countless traps for a male critic to stumble into.”

You can’t not bring yourself to the play, as you write about it.

But reviews haven’t necessarily split along gender lines: while Tripney and Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard both celebrated it with five-star raves, Ann Treneman has given it just one star in The Times. Meanwhile, notices from male critics have tended to lie closer to Mountford and Tripney, with four stars from Time Out, the Guardian and the Telegraph.

Across the entertainment industry, hard battles are being fought for visibility and representation. Just this week, Hank Azaria has said he would be willing to step aside from providing the voice of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons, and be replaced by an Indian or south Asian actor.

Interviewed by Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, he said: “I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it. Listening to voices means inclusion in the writers’ room. I really want to see Indian, south Asian writers in the writers’ room, genuinely informing whichever direction this character takes.”

And, similarly, Broadway’s Sierra Boggess stepped down from performing the role of  Maria in a BBC Prom concert performance of West Side Story in August, following a negative reaction to her being cast in a traditionally Latina part.

Sierra Boggess withdraws from West Side Story concert following casting row

In a statement on Facebook, she declared: “After much reflection, I’ve realised that if I were to do this concert, it would once again deny Latinas the opportunity to sing this score, as well as deny the importance of seeing themselves represented on stage. Since the announcement of this concert, I have had many conversations about why this is a crucial time, now more than ever, to not perpetuate the miscasting of this show.”

Yes, Latino performers don’t have enough casting opportunities – but in this case, I would have argued for it being a concert, intended for radio broadcast, where physical verisimilitude isn’t necessary; it’s all to do with the sound.

And, as Hamilton gloriously proves, we live in a world where physical attributes are now routinely disregarded: that’s the meaning of colour-blind casting. Should this only travel in one direction?

We’re also seeing the upending of long-established traditions: again, this week saw the announcement that Broadway’s “gypsy robe” ceremony – in which ensemble members, traditionally referred to as gypsies, are honoured on the first night of every show by the passing of a robe from the last show to open to the chorus member with the most Broadway credits – will be re-named after this year, nearly 70 years after its inception.

R Kim Jordan, chair of Equity’s Advisory Committee on Chorus Affairs, said in a statement: “When I think of the Robe, I think about the intent behind the tradition, which is meant to celebrate our members. But the words we use have an impact beyond their intent, and we cannot appropriate someone else’s identity without their voice attached to it. I’m proud that Council voted to retire the name while we continue the tradition of the Robe next season.”

Does this mean, though, that Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s 1959 musical Gypsy will also have to be re-named?