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Kate Maltby: Why is the theatre industry accepting money from the anti-LGBT+ Saudi regime?

Thriller Live's producer Flying Music has signed a deal to bring West End entertainment to Saudi Arabia. Photo: Shutterstock
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There are plenty of battles still to be won in Britain by the LGBT+ community and its allies. Recent homophobic protests outside Parkfield Community School in Birmingham, which led to it cancelling lessons about same-sex relationships, show us how far there is to go.

But if there is an industry in Britain where LGBT+ people are supposed to feel welcome and valued, it is the performing arts sector. Queer people built British theatre. And most of the time, Theatreland puts on a good show of loving the LGBT+ community back.

Walk through Soho on Pride weekend, and you’ll see West End theatres on all sides flying the rainbow flag. Equity has just launched an LGBT+ network and is actively supporting the development of new guidelines for casting LGBT+ actors. The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez’ sparkling Aeneid for the 21st-century gay community, is justly nominated for eight awards at next months’ Oliviers. Finally, LGBT+ people aren’t just telling theatre’s stories: they are at the centre of them.

So it seems unimaginable that a major commercial theatre producer has signed a deal to bring the West End to a country where LGBT+ people are executed by the state for loving each other.

Last month, a number of UK promoters signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority to bring their shows there. They include Flying Music, the company behind Thriller Live, which the Saudis hope to stage (assuming the latest revelations about Michael Jackson don’t destroy the franchise). They also include the magician Dynamo, open-air cinema company Luna Cinema and Merlin Entertainments, which owns Madame Tussauds and other theme parks incorporating performing arts elements.

The glossy press release was accompanied by a photo of Flying Music co-founder Derek Nicol grinning as he shook hands with Turki al-Sheikh, chairman of the state-owned General Entertainment Authority. The image was later shared on Twitter by al-Sheikh’s booster army of ultra-nationalist ‘Saudi First’ accounts.

Serious questions have been raised about al-Sheikh, who is very close to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the de facto Saudi leader who has been under scrutiny after allegations he was linked to the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year. The Saudi government denies the claims.

What on earth is anyone in the British entertainment industry doing getting into bed with this regime? LGBT+ people can face the death penalty in Saudi, although some ‘only’ face hundreds of lashes and long prison sentences.

As the Foreign Office travel advice for Saudi Arabia baldly puts it: “Homosexuality is illegal and can be subject to severe penalties. It’s also illegal to be transgender. Transgender people travelling to Saudi Arabia are likely to face significant difficulties and risks if this is discovered by the authorities.”

Does Flying Music intend to stage Thriller without any trans or gay artists? Or tell them that conditions of their employment require them to live in fear and hiding?

As a capitalist type myself, I usually support slow economic engagement as the best way to erode the world’s cultural barriers. There’s a strong case that when we trade with people, we can influence them. And the crown prince and his pals suggested they were reformers we could work with, when MBS loudly announced he was relaxing the ban on women driving.

Yet the prince reportedly subsequently oversaw mass arrests of the feminist activists who had campaigned on this issue. Loujain al-Hathloul, an activist who led the campaign against the driving ban, was put on trial this week after being detained for 10 months. Writing in the Guardian, her brother Walid al-Hathloul claimed she had been subject to torture and sexual harassment.

Last month, a cross-party panel of three British MPs concluded that the female activists were detained in cruel and inhumane conditions. This is the state entity with which Flying Music is going into business.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe in a couple of years, we’ll see Nicol overseeing the first all-singing, all-dancing LGBT+ outreach project to Saudi Arabia, where British theatre kids use Thriller Live to teach the Saudis how to be fabulous. But I doubt it.

When I asked him on Monday, Nicol confirmed the MOU for Thriller Live, but says final contract negotiations hadn’t concluded. He added: “Flying Music is an equal-opportunities employer and we will look out for and safeguard the well-being of both our cast and crew.” Incidentally, this comes in the week in which Milan’s La Scala decided to return more than €3 million to Saudi Arabia.

Britain is rightly proud of the arts franchises we export abroad. Yet too often, we don’t ask our big corporate producers how they’re doing business overseas. If you sell out to repressive regimes, the rainbow flag flying over your London venue can start to look a bit flimsy.

Kate Maltby is a freelance critic and columnist. She writes regularly for the Guardian and the Financial Times

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