Much like the young Rufus Norris after he fell off his decorator’s ladder and hit himself in a sensitive spot, theatre finds itself “bruised, angry and humiliated”. The EU referendum and the general election have left the generally pro-European, liberal theatre sector on the losing side twice in quick succession.
This state of affairs will not change soon. Brexit will go ahead and there will likely be an extended period of Conservative government. So, how should those in the industry of a left-leaning viewpoint approach this dilemma?
This is the head-scratcher that both Norris, director of the National Theatre, and costume designer Catherine Kodicek grapple with in their columns this week. They approach this conundrum with – I suspect – similar world views, but come up with very different answers.
Kodicek admits she wants to “scream into the sea” and calls on the theatre world to “reject utterly” the values it doesn’t agree with, to boycott events such as the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards over the newspaper’s support for Boris Johnson.
Norris, in a not particularly coded message to the prime minister, espouses a seemingly more moderate tack, promising to “engage with this new government” to work towards an easy win of celebrating “the great work and best practice around the country”. He will refrain, he says, from “punching myself, or anyone else, where it hurts”.
Both approaches are valid and equally necessary. There is absolutely a place for protest – both on and off stage. The sector should fight hard for its beliefs and be unafraid to ask difficult questions about the direction our country is heading in, or to challenge those who voice views we find abhorrent. Sometimes, this is the only way to get those on the other side of an argument to sit up and take notice.
But, theatre has always provided a forum for debate, as well as protest. There also has to be a place for people, especially those in positions of responsibility such as Norris, to reach out across the divide, try to make the best of a bad situation and find common ground with those with whom we might disagree.
People are more than their ideologies. In an increasingly polarised world, sometimes the most radical act is to give people the benefit of the doubt: to see the humanity in those whose views you utterly disagree with, not to dismiss them as two-dimensional villains.
This is something all the great dramatists have understood.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith