Diversity is a vitally important issue in theatre but we have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water and dismiss dead white men such as Chekhov and Shakespeare, as Theatre Correspondent Nick Ahad explains.
Sir Peter Bazalgette is a showman: of course he is, he created Big Brother. He knows how to sell to the crowd.
Bazalgette, chair of Arts Council England, used those skills when he got to his feet in front of an audience of arts professionals in December last year and announced: “This is one of the most important speeches I will make as Chair of Arts Council England.”
That’s how you make an audience sit up and listen.
The importance Bazalgette stressed was because he was announcing a fundamental change in the way the arts must approach diversity.
When it comes to reflecting the diverse nature of contemporary Britain, Baz, as he likes to be known, believes the arts are failing.
As someone working in the arts who ticks the diversity box, it was music to my ears. The issue of diversity, as Lenny Henry, Meera Syal, Richard Eyre – the list is enormous – have repeatedly reminded us, is not going away. We need to keep fighting the good fight to see true representation of modern Britain on our stages, in our cinemas, in every aspect of the arts. The shadow minister for the arts, Labour’s Chris Bryant, highlighted his discomfort at the lack of black faces he saw when he attended the BAFTA awards just last month.
So, the issue of diversity is an important one. The gatekeepers have recognised it and I feel more optimistic than I ever have that the issue, finally, will not go away and will finally be tackled. The dead white men have ruled for too long.
There is a dangerous possibility we are facing. We need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
If we concentrate entirely on spinning the diversity plate, we might see an equally important one come crashing to the ground.
You know who are dead white men? Anton Chekhov and William Shakespeare.
The works of both can currently be seen in Yorkshire and my life would certainly be poorer if our theatre companies stopped producing the works of these two, one of whom was one of the greatest masters of the craft of drama that ever lived and the other the soul of many ages.
Samuel Adamson is behind the adaptation of the version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya currently playing to hugely appreciative audiences at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Adamson’s script absolutely rockets along, pinging as it goes with great one liners and enormous depth. It is served also by a hugely impressive set design. Surely the fact that the source material is written by a long dead white man isn’t enough to condemn it?
“I think there is a perception with the great classics that everyone has seen them lots of times, but I’m always surprised by how few people have actually seen this,” says Adamson. “It’s the first time the Playhouse has done it, so I am aware that people will be seeing it for the first time here. It is an exquisite, extraordinarily crafted piece of writing that has enormous feeling.
“The questions Vanya asks of his place in the world and what he has done with his life are universal questions we all ask. It is an incredibly prescient piece of writing. It’s an important piece of work.”
Adamson is right and the Playhouse over the past month has been the perfect snapshot of how the issue of diversity can and perhaps should be tackled – while Uncle Vanya plays in the Quarry, next door in the Playhouse’s smaller theatre, the Courtyard, Boi Boi is Dead by Zimbabwe-born Zodwa Nyoni is playing. That’s the kind of diversity I want to advocate – where dead white men have a place alongside vibrantly alive young black women.
“We need to have diversity in casting and fortunately we have much more colourblind casting now, the attitude that we have to have all-white casts in classics no longer exists and that’s great, but we need lots of things in a theatre programme to make a vibrant mix.”
And that’s the key. Diversity in all aspects of theatre is vital, but we need Chekhov – and we certainly need adaptations like the sparkling one Adamson has created for the Playhouse.
Shakespeare, another of those dead white men, continues to be produced, thank God. Barrie Rutter’s towering and crumbling King Lear is also coming to West Yorkshire Playhouse next month. Rutter’s long term collaborator Conrad Nelson is a big believer in the importance of diversity – last year I wrote a column praising Broadsides for casting British Asian actor Darren Kuppan as Frank Armitage in An August Bank Holiday Lark.
“Within seconds of Darren being on stage it didn’t matter to anybody at all. Even people who you might think might raise their eyebrows, it just didn’t matter,” says Nelson.
“What does matter is the quality of the work, the writing, all the things that make these plays survive all this time. Is it still relevant? That is the question and I would argue that absolutely it is, it has great importance in the whole canon of theatre.
“It’s about inclusivity. There’s such a lot of wealth in Shakespeare and a lot of those writers – I agree in principle that it must get tiring from one point of view, frustrating to see the same canon of work in a rep theatre, I can see why season after season it can get exhausting, but that’s not necessarily a reason to get rid of it. The quality of the work in itself is worth celebrating and if, say, you cast it in a certain way you can see how it is relevant to people with many different cultural identities.
“We took Merry Wives to India and with its themes about making sure your daughter marries the right person meant it was lapped up there. It was more culturally relevant to those audiences than it was to an English audience, so to dismiss him as a dead white writer is a ridiculous point of view.”