Four times a year, the National Theatre puts out a standard press release saying what will be playing in its repertory system over a given period of months, with the big news being the announcement of new shows going on sale.
The press release that went out last Thursday featured five new shows and one show returning to the rep, all by men, with only one directed by a woman. That’s pretty bad, right? Well yes: the National screwed up, though possibly not for the reason most people think.
In fact, the press release goes on to note which shows from the last period are continuing in rep. This time there will be six, four of which – Small Island, Top Girls, Rutherford and Son and Anna – are by women, of which three are directed by women. That’s not parity, but it’s an improvement that might have headed off the outcry if it had been communicated well enough.
I think Rufus Norris and Lisa Burger are slowly steering the ship in the right direction regarding gender parity. For instance, it’s worth noting that the previous period, February to July, featured three new plays by women, with just one by a man.
A recent open letter, with more than 200 signatures, called out the NT for its lack of programming of women. It singles out Shakespeare’s Globe, praising the West End transfer of Emilia as the sort of thing the National should presumably be doing. But it fails to note that in the past six months the NT has transferred two plays by women (Nine Night and Home, I’m Darling) to the West End.
Still, I’m conscious of my privilege, both as a man, but also as a journalist whose job it is to be geekily acquainted with the NT’s rep system. most people saw it this way: the National announced six shows, all by men. On social media, only those shows were mentioned, with nothing about the four shows by women receiving extensions.
It’s not a surprise that it kicked off on social media. People expressed their discontent with the facts presented to them – they didn’t run off and download a pdf of the NT’s byzantine rep schedule to ascertain what other shows not mentioned were also on at the same time.
Diversity and representation are in the eye of the beholder, as much as anything: if the nation’s flagship theatre gives the impression that it’s not staging plays by women then it’s not doing the job it could be in representing them.
Norris and Burger’s contrite response suggests lessons have been learned. But this kerfuffle may have eclipsed a more serious dereliction of duty regarding programming writers and directors of colour.
The NT’s annual target for both is 20%, and while it might claw things back in the second half of the year – which we know includes Inua Ellams’ Nadia Fall-directed Three Sisters – it looks very likely that every writer and director in the entire first half will be white, barring Roy Alexander Weise.
Even if the NT hits the 20% target via the second half of the year, audiences can’t see anything by a writer of colour for months on end, which doesn’t seem right, no matter how you spin it.
Andrzej Lukowski is theatre editor at Time Out London. Read more of his columns at thestage.co.uk/author/andrzej-lukowski/