How should we curb critics when they over-step the mark?
This week the role of critics has come under scrutiny as one long-serving reviewer revealed a racist approach to the casting of classic plays. Arts editor Andrew Clarke says that while you should disapprove of his views, banning dissenting voices is never the answer
It will come as no surprise to many theatre watchers that long-serving critic and Parliamentary sketchwriter Quentin Letts has blotted his copybook again. Renowned for swimming against the tide of popular opinion and having decidedly individual opinions, it is only to be expected that every now and then, he crosses the boundary of what most people see as good taste.
However, this week, he may have gone too far because, for the first time in living memory, the Royal Shakespeare Company, used shrugging off the odd negative review or taking a brickbat or two, has felt compelled to issue a statement condemning what they felt was Letts’ “blatantly racist attitude” to the casting of their play The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich.
In his review, Lett’s suggests that the veteran Shakespearean actor, Leo Wringer, with a host of RSC credits to his name, had only been cast in the production because he was black: stating “The RSC’s clunking approach to politically correct casting has again weakened its stage product.”
Not content to leave it there, Letts digs himself in deeper. “I suppose its managers are under pressure from the Arts Council to tick inclusiveness boxes, but, at some point, they are going to have to decide if their core business is drama or social engineering.”
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This is what has stung the RSC into action. None of this commentary from Quentin Letts actually addressed Leo Wringer’s performance on stage which, according to other viewers, was well received. It would appear that Letts problem was with the now, widely accepted practice of colour-blind casting, getting the best person for the role regardless of their ethnic background.
The RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran along with his deputy Erica Whyman, the production’s director Jo Davies and the company’s executive director Catherine Mallyon replied in direct fashion, saying: “We are shocked and deeply troubled by Quentin Letts’ review in which he seems to demonstrate a blatantly racist attitude to a member of the cast. We’re very proud to be working with every member of the company, each of whom has been asked to join us in Stratford because we value and recognise their unique skills and talents.
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“Our approach to casting is to seek the most exciting individual for each role and in doing so, create a repertoire of the highest quality. We are proud that this ensures our casts are also representative of the diversity of the United Kingdom, that the audiences which we serve are able to recognise themselves on stage and that our work is made and influenced by the most creative range of voices and approaches.”
This is strong stuff. Not that Quentin Letts cares, he is currently away on holiday and tweets: “Being on hols, I am rather missing the hoo-hah, happily.” While, he is away, however, a pair of larger debates are starting to rage. The first comes from actor and Act for Change co-founder Danny Lee Wynter who suggests that theatres should stop inviting Quentin Letts to review their shows while others, mostly online, have started to question the role of the traditional reviewer.
They argue that the growth of theatre blogs online and comments on Facebook and Twitter have dispensed with the need for commentary from ‘middle-aged, middle-class white men who went to public school,’ and, while I would say I don’t recognise myself from that description, I would argue that there should be room for everyone’s voice including ‘middle-aged, middle-class white men’.
And it’s for that reason that, as tempting as it sounds, theatre’s shouldn’t ban Quentin Letts from entering their auditoria. As Winston Churchill, quoting Voltaire, once said: “While I disagree wholeheartedly with what you say, I shall defend to the death your right to say it.” All we can hope for is that Quentin Letts has a road to Damascus moment when it comes to watching black actors in classic drama.
In any event, banning Letts would never work. Three years ago, Kristin Scott Thomas, made it known that after several run-in with Letts she didn’t want him invited to her performance as The Queen in The Audience. Letts bought a ticket anyway, sat in the gods, and filed a predictably toxic review.
With regard to the role of critics I will make this observation that critics provide a valuable contribution to the cultural debate. You shouldn’t necessarily take one persons view as gospel but rather read a broad range of reviews and take a measure of a shows worth from that. The internet has made that a lot easier to do. Critics also provide a hopefully knowledgeable, independent and experienced eye on the proceedings while reviews on Facebook tend (not always) to be fans reviewing the latest performance of a hero or of a favourite show. It’s great that people are talking about theatre and the arts but disappointing that one of critics elder statesmen has revealed himself, once again, to be something of a dinosaur.