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Kate Maltby: Imposing outdated dress codes will make theatre more exclusive

Dress codes will make theatre more exclusive, says Kate Maltby. Photo: Pawel Libera
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This week’s manufactured theatre controversy arrives courtesy of the Sunday Telegraph. Its front cover featured 90-year-old Daphne Selfe, billed as “the world’s oldest supermodel”, quoted making a stand for a return to formal dressing at the theatre. Daphne claims to be “ashamed” when she encounters fellow audience members in jeans.

If you’re reading The Stage, you probably don’t need me to tell you that this is anti-inclusive and anti-theatrical rubbish. Does anyone in the industry really think, as Daphne does: “It’s disrespectful to the actors to not wear something good?” Instead, when older, wealthy people lament the absence of designer labels in the auditorium, it’s usually just another way of telling younger or low-income people that they shouldn’t be there.

The problem is that this nonsense rears its head in the mainstream press on a regular basis. Back in 2013, when English National Opera launched its ‘Undress for the Opera’ campaign, there was a flood of ‘controversialist’ articles dissing its message that attendees were welcome in jeans and trainers. As now, the loudest Jonahs didn’t come from the theatre world. Italian designer Valentino put in a bid for high-fashion theatre dressing, in an interview also extolling Downton Abbey as a model for English country living.

What can we do to push back against this idea of theatre for an elite? Those of us who write for mainstream publications have a responsibility to challenge this. To touch on a story too long and complicated to unpack fully here, I’ll never forgive whichever unknown subeditor headlined my Times review of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet ‘Shakespeare for the kids’ – not the line I wrote. I’ll always stand by our decision to hold a highly commercial ‘preview’ to critical account the day it opened at full prices (£125), but the problem was not and never is the audience.

What does exclude young people – alongside dress codes – are those high ticket prices rising steadily across the West End. But while looking up prices for current shows at Delfont Mackintosh theatres, I stumbled on something that worried me more.

This note currently appears on productions booked through the Delfont Mackintosh website: “All persons under the age of 16 must be accompanied by and sat next to the accompanying adult. They may not sit on their own within the auditorium. If children do have separate seats you could be refused entry.”

My early teenage years were when I discovered theatre. I was young and lonely, questioning my sexuality and my place in the world – but every Friday and Saturday night, when cooler kids were at parties, I found a world I belonged. Tickets were costly, but I found every under-25s scheme I could or queued on the streets for day seats. If I’d been banned from theatres without an adult until I was 16, I’d never have seen Aiden Gillen in The Tempest or Fiona Shaw in Medea – shows that changed my life. And by the way, I was probably wearing jeans.

Kate Maltby is a columnist and critic. She currently writes regularly for the Financial Times and the Guardian, as well as a range of US publications. She sits on the board of Index on Censorship and this year’s judging panel for the David Cohen Prize for Literature. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/kate-maltby

The Green Room: How can we reduce ticket prices?

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