Stage star labels theatre a ‘white invention’

Stabbed in the back: Julius Caesar by the Brooklyn Academy of Music © Richard Termine

A row over diversity in British drama has escalated after renowned actor Janet Suzman claimed theatre is in the ‘DNA’ of white people. Does the stage need to do more to diversify?

In the 450th year since Shakespeare's birth, actors from the Globe Theatre have taken the line ‘All the world’s a stage’ literally and embarked on a two-year world tour performing Hamlet. Sets have included ancient Mayan ruins in Honduras and palm-lined Buenos Aires streets, with huge crowds gathering for every performance.

While Britain's best-known bard is proving popular with audiences around the world, actor Meera Syal has complained that not enough is being done to cater for Asian audiences in the UK. She believes theatres are missing out on a lucrative market. More Asians would go to plays, she says, if there were more stories that ‘reflect[ed] their experiences or a diverse cast of people they might know’.

The plot thickened this week when one of Britain’s most distinguished actors Janet Suzman replied that other races are simply ‘not interested’ in theatre. 'Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it,' she says. 'It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare’.

This has provoked fury theatre critics, who say it is impossible to claim that any single race invented theatre. Cultures across the world tell stories through the medium of performance, they point out. There is evidence of Ancient Egyptian plays celebrating the god Osiris from as far back as 2000BC. China’s shadow puppet tradition dates back to around 200BC, and a Sanskrit manual guiding Indian priests in performing sacred rituals is as old as Christianity.

Ancient Greece began to develop the European blueprint for drama after 500BC, when the city state of Athens fostered a highly sophisticated arts culture. Playwrights like Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes honed forms of tragedy and comedy that would influence the likes of Shakespeare, Goethe and Ibsen two thousand and more years later — up to the present day.

While Suzman’s ‘DNA’ comment has been dismissed as naive, she has sparked a debate about the nature of UK theatre and what its priorities should be.

Time to act

For too long Britain’s theatres have been the stuffy preserve of the white middle classes, some say. It is time theatre changed to reflect the lives and interests of all. Since many theatres rely on taxpayer funding, they must ensure they appeal to everyone and stage the life experiences of all ethnic groups.

But others counter that playwrights and directors must be true to their own visions, rather than trying to appeal to a specific crowd. Surveys suggest that 92% of theatre goers are white, an almost identical proportion to the overall British population. Diversity should be encouraged, but great art cannot be made unless the writers have the freedom to do as they please.

You Decide

  1. Should theatres make more effort to attract an ethnically diverse audience?
  2. ‘Films and television have made theatre irrelevant.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. In groups, come up with a plot for a play that would appeal to your class. Compare with other groups, and vote to see which play would be most popular.
  2. Take one of your favourite books or films and think about how it could be adapted into an hour-long play. Write a list of what the scenes would be and the parts that need to be included. If you feel ambitious, try writing the adaptation.

Some People Say...

“A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.’James Crook”

What do you think?

Q & A

Theatre just doesn’t appeal to young people anymore.
You might think that TV and film have made people lose interest in theatre, but a Ticketmaster survey found that the age group most likely to attend the theatre was 16 to 19-year-olds. The report suggests that this is linked to younger people’s social media use, which keeps them up to date with the latest shows and news.
Would plays written by ethnic minorities make a difference?
It's hard to say. Janet Suzman complains that she was in a play about South Africa’s struggle with racism and the lead actor was black, but despite the subject matter and the cast, almost no black people came to see it. On the other hand, black novelist Ben Okri believes the problem is that not enough plays are written by ethnically diverse writers.

Word Watch

Shadow puppet
This ancient art, involving intricate cut-out figures moving in front of a light, supposedly goes back to when a lover of one of the emperors of the Han dynasty died. When he summoned court officials and told them to bring her to life, they made her shape and had her dance on the wall.
Sophocles
One of only three Ancient Greek tragedians whose work has survived. He took part in 30 of Athens’s prestigious playwriting competitions and won 24 of them.
Shakespeare
Even though Shakespeare adopted many forms used in Greek tragedy, 18th century poet John Dryden complained that Shakespeare had not observed classical ‘forms’ as well as his contemporaries. It shows just how much power Greek drama has had over western theatre’s development.
Goethe
The German writer became a literary celebrity by the age of 25 and wrote plays, science treatises, and novels.
Ibsen
Only Shakespeare’s plays were performed more frequently than Ibsen’s in the 20th century.
Taxpayer
Much money for theatres and arts in the UK comes from the Arts Council, which is itself funded by the government.

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