English National Ballet has severed its ties with Prince Andrew in the wake of his disastrous BBC interview about his association with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Place have done the same.
So, that’s all right, then? Actually, I’m not sure it is. After all, the accusations against Prince Andrew have been in the public domain for a long time, so why was it only after the car crash of an interview, in which the prince expressed no sympathy for Epstein’s victims, did arts organisations – and the other 200 organisations with which he had associations – start cutting their ties?
It looks suspiciously as if the rush to ditch him following the interview is about damage limitation and not wanting to be tarnished by association. This was not a proactive stance about the values of the organisations, who they want to be associated with and in what capacity, and how seriously they take safeguarding, particularly if they are involved with young people.
At a time when theatre is looking to broaden its appeal and welcome new and diverse audiences and artists, you could well ask whether having royal patronage or a royal charter is appropriate in the 21st century. What might, in the mists of time, have been a badge of pride, and possibly a way of attracting high-end donors and sponsors, now looks old-fashioned and out of touch, and peddles the idea that theatre, dance and the arts are only for the elite.
To me, having somebody like Kate Tempest as your patron would have far wider appeal than a minor royal whose interest in the arts is minimal. The Royal National Theatre hasn’t dropped the prefix Royal from its title, but it doesn’t use it.
Writing in his diary in 1988, then NT artistic director Richard Eyre noted he was against the Royal Charter: “I haven’t yet had to publicly defend it, and I am not looking forward to having to lie.” When asked about the prefix in 2018, Rufus Norris said: “There’s no question about the fact that theatre has a challenge. This country is still very class-driven and anything that adds to the perception that this place is not for everyone can be a downfall.”
It certainly can. Royal Opera House. Royal Shakespeare Company. Surely, we want our theatres and arts organisations to look more like the taxpayers who fund them than those born into a life of privilege far removed from ordinary experience.
Theatre can’t have it both ways: it can hardly proclaim that it wants to serve and connect with everyone – including the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society – and at the same time align itself with the badges and baubles of privilege. Isn’t there a contradiction in inviting artists into your theatre to make work that criticises privilege when your letterhead proclaims your pride in wearing privilege’s badge?
Just as all arts organisations need to think very hard about who they take sponsorship and donations from, they also need to rethink their patrons: who they are, why they are there, what they bring to the organisation and how their association is a reflection of the values you espouse and want to promote. Is the royal family renowned for its love of theatre? Elizabeth I, definitely. Elizabeth II, not so much.
When it comes to Prince Andrew, the question of his role as patron is even more pressing given the allegations by Virginia Giuffre against him. After all, theatre still has a very long way to go in the wake of #MeToo to dismantle the power structures and hierarchies that for too long have allowed abuse, on many different scales and in many different forms, to take root and flourish.
Royal patronage of any theatre institution does not, of course, directly contribute to those abuses in any way, but it does defer to existing power structures, fortify their longevity and buy into the inequalities that the very existence of the monarchy reinforces.
So why doesn’t every theatre organisation think about ditching all its royal connections (not just the tarnished ones)? In looking for ambassadors and patrons, take inspiration from artist Joshua Sofaer, who in projects such as Your Name Here in St Helens and Name in Lights, has celebrated ordinary people and their association with place and space.
There are many different kinds of patronage. Ordinary people – those unsung heroes in the community with a real connection to an arts organisation and a love of theatre – would not only earn their name on the notepaper, they are also likely to do far more for that organisation than someone with HRH before their name.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner