With regard to the open letter ‘Playing Jewish roles on stage’ and subsequent correspondence, I feel impelled to draw attention to Motion 54 submitted by the Humberside Variety Branch and passed unanimously at the Equity Annual Representative Conference 2019: “In celebrating this 90th year of Equity, this ARC remembers the destruction of theatres by the Puritans and the orders that all players were rogues and vagabonds who should be whipped. This ARC remembers that it was only in 1968 that censorship of the stage in the UK was abolished. In recognition of these memories, this ARC affirms the rights of members to play-act, pretend, make-believe in theatres and places of entertainment.”
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The deadline for Arts Council England’s 10-year draft strategy online consultation is fast approaching (September 23). As a matter of urgency and democracy, we should all participate.
We know from conversations with ACE that the online responses to the first consultation made a significant impact on their thinking. We should all take this last precious opportunity to influence the shape of the next 10 years, especially anyone concerned with 50/50 gender representation.
Artistic director, Sphinx Theatre
I was heartened to read Bella Todd’s intelligent review of the musical Oklahoma! at Chichester Festival Theatre.
In these days of colour-blind and gender-blind casting, it is good to discover a critic courageous enough to question the practice. Few people would want to deny the much-needed opportunities it can bring to actors otherwise under-represented. But like positive discrimination, it doesn’t always work, because to deny a person their ethnic origin is to deny an important part of themselves. Of course the art of theatre is the art of make-believe. An actor asks “What country, friends, is this?” and is answered with “It is Illyria,” and we accept it. Neither do we confuse the actor with the part: we know that they are not a murderous Scottish queen or a Danish prince; we accept the convention that they are who they say they are.
Equally, Shakespeare’s Henry V is not the real Henry V, about whom we know very little. It is a construct of the playwright based on Holinshed, so if you transfer it to a modern theatre of war and cast Adrian Lester as the king, it still works perfectly well.
But if you do a reasonably historically accurate production of a play or musical and take trouble with period details, as in Jeremy Sams’ production, putting it more or less when Oklahoma was about to become a state, then surely you also have to live by the conventions of that period. Oklahoma at that time was a very redneck state and a black girl would have been unlikely to have been thought eligible to marry the handsome white village cowman. In this instance, in which everything is in period, it is nearly impossible to avoid the fact that the actor in question, Amara Okereke, is black.
This is compounded by the fact that Jud Fry was played by the young black actor Emmanuel Kojo, which may have made him a more feasible alternative lover for Laurey, but exacerbates the problem, by making him almost a “stereotype of black masculinity” as Todd accurately writes in her review. The Jud Fry character and subplot are difficult enough without revisionist casting. Like Shylock, he is a problem character, but when played, as in the film, by a great actor such as Rod Steiger, it almost works. The musical, glorious in many ways, poses many awkward problems for today’s audience: both Ado Annie’s gun-toting Dad and the kangaroo-court judgement exonerating Curly of killing Jud sit uneasily in 2019.
I must state very clearly that both the actors in question were outstanding in their singing, dancing and acting. If I had any other criticism of the production, it would be that it never really made the village or its inhabitants lived-in characters. I never believed Curly had ever ridden a horse, or that Aunt Eller could shoot a gun, let alone churn butter as in the original. One only has to think of Charlotte Greenwood in the film or Maureen Lipman in the National Theatre production: they became the moral centre of the community. In addition, the costumes were rather too clean and laundered, so that one could hardly believe they worked for a living or that Jud Fry had “dirt under his fingernails”. The performers were extremely talented and rendered the immortal score with great verve. I just take issue with casting in this particular production.
To Daniel Evans and all theatre practitioners concerned about Brexit, here’s an idea, and a challenge.
Try creating theatre that seeks to bring people together, and strives to find common ground, common identity, common humanity. Try empathising with the nuances of opposing politics, instead of lambasting its stereotypes. Try assuming your audience isn’t ignorant, bigoted and in need of ideological rebuke. Try to enjoy them. Try to understand them. And if you’re brave enough, try to love them.
And maybe use this opportunity to try shopping for local, organic talent. It’s diverse and abundant.
“I’m working harder than I’ve ever done. I’m aware that I will be unfashionable very shortly, and so I want to tell as many stories as I can while I am still interesting to people.” – Playwright Jack Thorne (New York Times)
“I didn’t see a straight play outside of panto until my late teens but gobbled up Emmerdale and Corrie and ’Stenders, getting my neighbours to tape hours of episodes if we ever went on holiday. I wouldn’t be a playwright without them.” – Playwright James Graham (Guardian)
“Freedom is a funny thing, because not everyone’s free when you think of it in terms of privilege. People might be given the freedom to write what they want to write, but if you’re not going to be given the money and time to be educated to structure what you want to write, then not everyone is given the same platform.” – Playwright Sonya Hale, speaking at an event celebrating the 40th anniversary of theatre company Clean Break at London’s Royal Court
“Streetcar was something else entirely. Even in the short runs that we did here and in the US, it really takes it out of one. I mean, there was a point where I thought I might be losing touch with reality, which is known to happen during that play.” – Actor Gillian Anderson (Observer)
“When I was young, I felt envious if an actress was getting more attention than I was. Actors like to be liked – well, I do – and you particularly want your director to be on your side. Not as a woman, but as an actor.” – Actor Zoë Wanamaker (Telegraph)
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