Sometimes, when I want to cry, I look up the latest arts stories coming out of Britain’s major news outlets. Not the arts coverage, but the straight up, ‘get-me-a-Trevor-Nunn-gaffe’ reporting beat that serves to excite a news desk in August.
Although there are honourable exceptions, too often the arts beat of a major outlet is an excuse for culture war by proxy. Whether it’s an excuse for columnists to fulminate against ‘trigger warnings’ in a show they haven’t seen, or to remind us that kids dressed up for the theatre in their day, it’s rare the media conversation about theatre reflects the issues genuinely sparking debate in the industry.
This past fortnight, the story receiving the wedge-issue treatment has been the complaint by Jewish arts practitioners that the production of Falsettos at the Other Palace had erased Jewish artists from a Jewish story. Their concerns echoed a wider anxiety in the Jewish community – that in an era of rising anti-Semitism, many who understand the dangers of ignorance towards other minorities do not extend the same sensitivity to Jewish people.
But read some of the responses, and you’d think there are only two possible takes on the story – one that guffaws: “Pshaw, identity politics are stupid” and one that screams for pickets and censorship unless the entire staff is sacked without notice and replaced with ‘culturally appropriate’ cast and creatives.
The use of the term ‘Jewface’ in the original letter didn’t help. Adam Lenson, a signatory to the letter, wrote an eloquent piece in Exeunt which reverted the focus from point-scoring to professional conversation around rehearsal-room practice and community engagement. One line in his piece rang home for anyone who’s ever been in a media storm: “The initial response to our letter tried to make the debate about things we never said.” ’Twas ever thus.
The fortnight’s other big arts story was handled as crassly by the world press. The soprano Kathryn Lewek complained on Twitter about critic Manuel Brug after his write-up of the Salzburg Festival mocked “fat women” – “dicke Frauen” in German – “in tight corsets spreading their legs”. In the Twitter age, this has become an almost perennial story – male critic calls female performer fat, she claps back. See last year’s incident with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
Now, I will defend the right of critics to describe what we see on stage as we see it. Casting choices are not made blind. But too often, this fight becomes an opportunity for hacks to bellow about snowflakes (yuck) or defend their right to bully. The job of a critic is to choose words carefully and responsibly. It’s not difficult to discuss a character’s physicality without insulting an actor’s body.
None of the issues above will be resolved in a 500-word column. But they won’t be resolved in a tabloid ‘arts’ headline either – or a Twitter spat. Our job is to have careful conversations in professional practice – and avoid being drawn into the agenda-driven culture-war that passes for coverage of the arts industry.
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