Theatre needs to change, this much we know.
Too many people who run British theatre look like too few of the population of contemporary Britain.
The question that many are faced with, then, is how to change this state of play?
One idea, led by the Arts Council a few years back, was to introduce the Change Makers. These are people selected by the Arts Council who reflect the true make up of contemporary Britain and have been installed in arts organisations around the country. Their job was to reflect and create the future of culture in Britain. One such Change Maker is Javaad Alipoor, who has spent the past couple of years working at Sheffield Theatres, having begun his career in Bradford.
Another is Amanda Huxtable. A Yorkshire-based theatre maker, she was the director and producer of Hidden Gems theatre company and had made work in her native Huddersfield for a number of years. She is now, and has been over the past couple of years, the Change Maker at Hull Truck Theatre.
I’ve long admired the work of Huxtable, who has put the stories of Black British women centre stage, so I was excited to hear what piece of work she would produce while at Hull Truck – the idea of the Change Makers scheme was to install someone in a building within the management structure, but to also have them stage a production.
She decided to stage Abigail’s Party and I was, frankly, disappointed.
I appreciate not everyone will have seen the Mike Leigh 1977 classic as often on stage as I have, but a safer choice from someone who was supposed to instigate change I couldn’t really have imagined. It’s a classic and when done well it can still feel like a contemporary piece of work, but a 40-year-old play about the mores and morals of the English middle class was not what I expected Huxtable to bring to Hull Truck.
Then she announced her cast and it all made sense. In Huxtable’s Abigail’s Party, which opens next week, there will be an added element to the Mike Leigh tale that I am willing to bet you haven’t experienced in this story before: a racial element. In Huxtable’s cast of five, two of the actors are Black.
“Coming from what I consider to be a place of privilege, in that I am a white male who works in the theatre, I feel there is a responsibility to be really hard on the roles that you take and to examine why you are taking them. Being involved in something like this, that puts the important work the Change Makers are doing front and centre is hugely important,” says Duncan Macinnes, who plays Laurence Moss in Huxtable’s production.
Ani Nelson plays Angela Cooper, played in the original production and the fabled TV recording by Janine Duvitski. She says: “This is the first time in my career I have worked with a black, female director. That is hugely significant and feels very important. But then on top of that to get to play this role, one that I would traditionally never even be able to audition for, is incredible. The script hasn’t changed, but working with Amanda has allowed me to bring my Jamaican heritage into this role.”
It is frustrating to have to talk to these two cast members about their race and about how that influences the story, but this feels like a moment we have to travel through in order to get to the point where race is not such a relevance and doesn’t have to be discussed in interviews.
When we do reach that point, though, the riches will be worth it, according to Macinnes. “Because the issue of race is being put front and centre in this production, with utter bravery, it makes all of us raise our games,” he says. “I am certainly aware of how important this is and makes you want to be the best you can be in it.” What’s also impressive about Huxtable’s small revolutionary idea with this production is that it breathes new life into a story many might feel they already know.
Nelson says: “I think the way we approach the issue of race isn’t something that will make the audience feel like it’s rammed down their throats, but it will definitely give them something to think about.
“When you look at some of the lines that Mike Leigh wrote all that time ago and then you look at them in the context we are presenting them, you see something so much more in what is being said. It is as though putting it into this context, where race has become a factor, means you look a the play in a whole new way.”
And if theatre, with productions like this, can make us look at the stories we see on our stages with fresh eyes, presented with fresh ideas, then surely we are all winners. Theatre is changing, people like Huxtable are helping to make that change, and it will help ensure the future of the artform.
Abigail’s Party is at Hull Truck Theatre from September 27 to October 20.
Tickets 01482 323638 or www.hulltruck.co.uk