Oh boy, I’ve been spending most of November getting angry over things. One thing that particularly angered me was this business over a student rugby team putting on an event insensitive to locals. I’m not angry with them – their only crime was to do something stupid without thinking, something we were all guilty of at their age – but at the public shaming campaign that was organised in response to this. I won’t be responding to this here – it needs a full article to explain exactly why you should be worried about this kind of stunt. That will come later.
I’ve also been getting getting increasingly angry with the fallout to the Weinstein saga. After the initial (quite justified) furore over Weinstein himself, the hypocrisy has been getting progressively worse. I’ve heard complaints that people are having careers destroyed over hearsay; I don’t know about that, after Kevin Spacey I lost track of who was being accused of what with what evidence. But what is alarming is that some people who are proven guilty of serious sex offences are getting off with a slap on the wrist, depending on where public outrage is being directed this week. If I ignore all the allegations unrelated to performing arts (and with it some shocking levels of victim-shaming going on across the political spectrum), the two most glaring cases are currently Poman Polanski and James Barbour. This article is a good summary of what kind of child-rape it’s apparently okay to commit if you star in Phantom of the Opera (Barbour has since said he’s leaving the run, but he’s moving on to other shows like nothing’s happened). I’ve already gone on enough about Polanski, so this poem from 2009 sums up the absence of morals quite eloquently.
Oh yeah, and in the least surprising news of the year, Harvey Weinstein was chosen as the annual effigy burnt in the infamous Edenbridge fireworks display. Who else?
But I can’t keep ranting about this forever. There are two things of particular relevance to UK theatre. Then I’m moving on. I promise.
Stuff that happened in November
So, there was stuff happening in November that didn’t involve yet another beloved actor who we all grew up with getting exposed as basically raping everyone for the last forty years, although that’s hard to imagine. Let’s let that out of the way then try to move on to something more cheery.
The Old Vic: wake-up call or whitewash?
The news that dominated theatre halfway though this month was a report from the Old Vic regarding alleged inappropriate behaviour during his time as Artistic Director. As always, it is important to remember that allegations alone are not proof of guilt, but his response to the original allegation from Anthony Rapp looks pretty bad. (i.e. if you can’t remember whether you did what he claimed, that suggests you do this sort of thing all the time). Inevitably, it wasn’t long before allegations of behaviour at the Old Vic started to emerge, which, given his fishy response to the aforementioned allegation, I’m minded to believe.
So an investigation was carried out, with the The Old commissioning an external law firm. This is the report; I urge you to read that rather than rely on other sources reporting on it. According to the report, yes, there are people who worked at the Old Vic who came forward for this report, but only one instance was raised with management. The important detail is that, if the report is to be believed, the trustees were not aware of the allegations. There are two ways you can look on this. One is that this is an honest admission that the Old Vic were not vigilant enough and lessons will be learned from the future. The other one is that this this report is there to protect managers and trustees – it might make noises to do better, but it’s main purpose is to deflect blame from everyone except the fall guy.
The truth is, we don’t know. For one thing, it’s impossible to scrutinise the report. You couldn’t possibly disclose the details of the allegations – certainly not after confidentiality had been promised to the complainants – but this comes at the expense of transparency. The only evidence we has that the trustees weren’t complicit is because Lewis Silkin law firm says so. Which brings us to the second problem. Lewis Silkin is a reputable law firm (I hope), but its work commissioned by the Old Vic is not fully independent. Even if the Old Vic told them to investigate whatever they like and report whatever they like, there’s no getting round the fact that any law firm who wrote a damning report of the people who commissioned isn’t going to help them get future work. This probably was the best the Old Vic could have done for an independent investigation. But in terms of regaining trust of the people who were there during Spacey’s tenure, the best they could do isn’t enough.
If management and trustees were blameless, they deserve to be cleared by an investigation we trust. If they were complicit, they should not be allowed to hide behind a report they commissioned. Either way, an independent investigation should not be answerable to people being investigated. I don’t know who should call the shots instead. UK Theatre? Equity? I’m open to better ideas. All I know is that, for a matter this serious, self-policing is not the answer.
Royal Court and No Grey Area
The other theatre implicated in the fallout from the scandals is the Royal Court. Former Artistic Director Max Stafford Clark was accused of inappropriate behaviour, a claim he has not denied. This time, the allegations were inappropriate remarks rather than sexual assault, although he obviously does not get off the hook just because someone else has done something worse. A defence given by a spokesperson for him is that he had a stroke that inhibited his judgement. That defence is disputed, as some allegations concern behaviour before the stroke. But even if we could excuse his behaviour on diminished responsibility, that is no excuse for the people around him who knew what he was doing and didn’t try to stop him.
It’s not clear whether what happened next was in response to this or just something that incumbent Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone would have done anyway, but a conference was held to take accounts of sexual harassment, and from these some guidelines were drawn up. I was sceptical of this because, for all the good intentions, there’s been a lot of hypocrisy and opportunism in the wake of the scandals. There were a lot of ways this could have been hijacked to fit somebody’s pre-existing agenda. But I’m pleased to say my fears were misplaced. I’ve read the guidelines, and there’s good.
By “good”, I mean it does the best it can. I am realistic, I realise that guidelines alone won’t put a stop to the Harvey Weinsteins. But if followed, it should make it harder for them. It says lot of things that might be stating the obvious, but need to be said because some theatres clearly aren’t doing it. One notable rule is that where harassment it proven, it must be dealt with openly – leaving quietly must not be an option. That should go without saying, but as we saw with the quiet departure of Max Stafford-Clark, that is not always the case. The guidelines also state some important principles, such higher expectations if you have power over other people, and recognising the blurred boundaries between work and socialising whilst making it clear it’s not acceptable to exploit it. Again, that’s obvious, but clearly the obvious needs to be stated for it to happen. I do wish they’d addressed the issue that witnesses need proper reporting structures as well as victims, but other than that it looks well thought out.
Crucially, the guidelines reject any notion that freedom of expression should be curbed, only that creativity must not mean sacrificing safety. That might have gone the other way. One of the more concerning responses to Weinstein and co, made by multiple people, was that we should spend more time shouting down writing deemed objectionable. That would have been very wrong, and not too different from the tactics of Mary Whitehouse, who routinely claimed anything offensive to her personally was harmful to society as a whole – even though the grounds to equate morally offensive with harmful were spurious or just non-existent. So look on this as a small but important step in the right direction. There are always loopholes that people in power will exploit if they can get away with it. Guidelines won’t stop them, only eternal vigilance will, but these guidelines will help that along.
Enter the Hippodrome and the Old Fire Station
Right, that enough about sex offenders for another month. Let’s get back to local theatre news, where everyone has been behaving themselves the last time I checked.
Locally, there’s major milestones for two new venues. One is that the Sunderland Old Fire Station has has its grand opening on November 23rd. This is going to be a mixed use venue, with Live Theatre’s Live Tales and Dance City both going to operate in this building. It’s not yet clear what theatre will be on offer, because their website is currently showing as “coming soon”. However, with a massive gap between the amateur Royalty Theatre and the grand scale (and grandly expensive) Sunderland Empire, this will surely be filling a gap in the middle.
It’s all change at Darlington too. The Civic Theatre has had a big redevelopment and is now back to its original name of the Hippodrome. I’m not too fussed on names myself, but “civic theatre” never felt catchy to me, and anyway, everyone loves hippos, don’t they? Of more interest is what they’ve done. The major change, which they’ve made big thing of, is expanding the backstage area to take on bigger touring productions (which I gather is considered more financially secure than the not-so-big productions they were doing before), and next year’s programme certainly looks that way. One snag, of course, is that grand-scale theatres tend to not have not that much actual theatre, with big musicals getting the most slots. However, this has been offset a bit with the arrival of Darlington Theatre Town, a two-week festival that looks like a souped-up version of Jabberwocky Market running in previous years, incorporating Theatre Hullabaloo, a visit from Roundabout (Paine Plough’s portable theatre) and some shows in the line-up I’ve heard good things about. So there does seem to be something for everyone.
So should we expect Darlington and Sunderland to catch up with Newcastle on the cultural map? Not yet. Welcome though these developments are, there’s one thing I’ve seen missing in both cases, and that’s interest in local talent. You will no doubt be pointed to all the ways you can get involved, such as classes and mass participation events. But that’s not good enough. In these events, someone higher up the cultural ladder makes all the creative decisions and takes the credit. It might inspire some people to go on to do their own thing, but the support for doing your own thing is still next to non-existent in most of the north-east. And, so far, I see little sign that Sunderland or Darlington plan to do things differently. I went to a “meet the programmers” event earlier this year, and in both these towns, as well as elsewhere, the venues showed the most interest in programming performers from ethnic minority backgrounds or have disabilities. Nothing wrong either of those, but the omission of local performers from the list raises questions over disinterest in local talent. The current model for areas of low cultural engagement still seems to be bringing outside talent to the local area, but never the other way round.
I hope my misgivings are misplaced. I hope that when local people are inspired to get creative, these new venues are inspired back to embrace and support their creativity rather than than turn round and tell them they’re on their own. It’s early days so there’s plenty of time the prove themselves yet. In the meantime, here’s two cheers for these new venues.
A swansong for Max Roberts
Meanwhile, one imminent departure from the theatre scene is long-standing director of Live Theatre, Max Roberts. I wrote about this last month, with my thoughts on what direction Live Theatre may go in with a new director (short answer: I think they’d be best off carrying on doing what they’re doing). There’s no news of a successor as of yet.
However, Max Roberts is not gone just yet, and he couldn’t have had a better finish to his tenure as Artistic Director. The final play he directed himself was The Red Lion. New writing is always a gamble and Live Theatre has had its fair share of disappointments to accompany its successes. But this play, it turns out, has been one of the best. It has a good run at Live in the spring of this year, good enough to transfer to Trafalgar Studios in London. Sometimes local acclaim is artificially inflated by local enthusiasm, but not this time, because The Red Lion has gone on to enjoy all-round critical acclaim in London.
Meanwhile, The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes is enjoying an excellent run. (This one wasn’t directed by Roberts but he very heavily championed it.) This one was a safe bet this time round, having enjoyed an excellent run the year before, but it seems to be surpassing everyone’s expectations, with seats selling around a week in advance. I personally would have staged this in the main theatre rather than the studio to meet demand – I’m aware of the counter-argument that the studio is a better intimate space, but I reckon the effect could still have been achieved in the main space myself. But studio it is, and no-one can argue with the result.
Remember Max Roberts is only standing down as Artistic Director – he is remaining as associate director, so we haven’t heard the last of him. But the successes of the last few months has important symbolic value. It may have been more down to luck than design, but he can step down from his post with his head held high.
The Pitman’s Parliament?
And finally, one thing has grabbed my attention over here in Durham: a plan to renovate the Miners’ Hall. This has been on the cards for a couple of years, but it’s only now that a real push is getting underway. For anyone who regularly passes through Durham on the train it’s a familiar sight: a grand-looking building in view from the viaduct (it was also used for The Common Good at Lumiere). But few people who see it know what it’s for. It was the headquarters of Durham Miners’ Association, and still is, but with the demise of the coalfields, the Miners’ Association now has a very reduced role, mostly organising the Miners’ Gala and looking after the welfare of ex-miners. The rest of the building has been leased out to various small organisations and charities.
I used to work in the Miners’ Hall as a volunteer for one organisation based there (long story), and I think it’s a good idea. What we have at the moment it better than nothing, but it could be doing so much more. Especially the council chamber. That’s a magnificent room, but it hardly gets used. On the rare occasions I have seen room in use, though, it’s worked beautifully. The rest of the time, it’s such a waste.
They need £2 million to do all the rennovations, but it’ll be worth it. It’s being sold as a heritage and education centre and not just a performance venue, but surely performances in the Miners’ Hall will come into it. The first round of fundraising in to sponsor a seat. This starts at £100, so I’m afraid there’s no option if you can only afford to chip in a tenner at the moment – hopefully that will come later. But when the time comes, please support this, because this is an asset we’d be crazy to throw away.
Stuff I wrote in November:
As well as all that, here’s what I wrote. Mostly a catch-up on reviews.
Rattlesnake: the enemy within: Open Clasp’s latest play on coercive control has something to say for a unusual reason.
Lumiere Durham 2017 preview: A list of things I was looking forward to in Lumiere. Roundup will be coming in due course. London bods, yes, there will be a Lumiere London preview too.
Overdue and Ella Grey: A review of two plays with fortnight-long runs going head to head between Alphabetti Theatre and Stage 2 of Northern Stage.
Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2017: At last. Let’s get all reviews of Edinburgh fringe in one place. Picks of the Fringe there at the moment, rest will be added shortly.
And that’s the last odds and sods on 2017. I don’t do one for December because nothing happens. So I can spend December and January trying to catch up on reviews. But don’t go away, because at the end of December it’s time for the 2017 awards. I haven’t decided yet. That should be exciting.