Odds and sods: March 2022

For the first time in three years, odds and sods makes it to March without a catastrophic event rendering it redundant. To recap how this works, March is normally my last monthly update until June. In April and May, I turn my focus to Brighton Fringe, and any notable events that take place over this time tend to get mentioned in the coverage. That established, let’s get going.

Stuff that happened in March:

It’s been a slow news month. The biggest news was the first major production of The Laurels, which effectively amounted to its launch. You can follow that link for my account of how this got here and what this means for the future, but their debut production was impressive. Other than that, developments have been thin on the ground and I’ve been scraping the bottom of the barrel. But here’s what’s been going on.

Edinburgh Fringe and employment

With the Edinburgh Fringe set this year to return to something comparable to pre-Covid times, concerns have been raising about the return of bad practices. A few weeks ago, I was worried this was turning into a pretext to campaign for the removal of open access – that would be a huge step backwards. (Fortunately, the festival Fringe Society shows no sign of budging there.) However, the battle lines seem to have been drawn around employment practices, in particular the use of volunteers. It’s difficult to piece together reliable conclusions based on the info we have, but one of the bigger worries is that the volunteer adverts posted by C Venues – who were pilloried three years ago for allegedly treating staff the worst – suggested more of the same. In response, Shona McCarthy has made this statement about employment conditions.

I urge you to read it yourself, because this covers a lot of ground. The best I can do to summarise it is as follows:

  • The fringe “reserves the right” to cut ties with venues who are found to do something illegal. (In practice, this probably means that any law-breakers will be kicked out, as it would be impossible to justify them staying.) Workers are also urged to report bad practice to the fringe, although it is unclear what consequences, if any, there are for practices are bad but legal.
  • It is noted that there are a lot of different models in action, from all paid staff to all volunteers with a lot in between. All models are considered to be valid under the appropriate circumstances. (I see the point: it wouldn’t be daft to have nothing to do with a local am-dram theatre whose year-round volunteers work in August. However, it is this sort of ambiguity that is open to abuse.)
  • It is a matter of choice whether you sign up to employment and which venue you choose, but the Festival Fringe Society will make sure you what you need to make an informed decision.
  • There is a code of practice for both employees and volunteers developed with BECTU and Equity, which a lot of venues sign up to.
  • There is also a regular survey of fringe workers which shows that most workers are satisfied with their experience, although they stress they still want to make things better for the minority who aren’t.

It is the latter two where I had some scepticism, not because I don’t trust the festival fringe society, but because I know of the lengths bad employers take to evade scrutiny. C Venues was signed up to this code of practice in 2019, but the volunteer ads being posted now don’t seem much better than the practices in 2018 that lost them Chambers Street. What is going on here? The workers’ survey results look more encouraging (there is the question over self-selecting samples, but I’d have thought that would make bad practice more visible, not less). But, again, I wonder if bad employers have simply found yet other way to stay under the radar. The one reform I would make to future surveys is to have the courage to break down the results by venues. Is C Venues really behaving worse than the others? That should give us a good idea one way or the other (and I’d certain trust that more than Fair Fringe, who appear to have the power to cherry-pick results against certain venues if they want to).

What I will add, however, is there Edinburgh Fringe doesn’t have that much in the way of enforcement powers. The threat of kicking out bad venues only carries so much weight – it wouldn’t be too difficult for the Big Four to break away, claim the Festival Fringe Society is making impossible demands, and carry on operating as before. If we are to be serious about clamping down on bad employers, this will have to be a joint effort. Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government have far better enforcement powers; the Edinburgh Fringe can assist them with the expertise of what is and isn’t excusable. At the moment, however, they seem more interested in blaming each other for inaction. If that doesn’t change, expect little change at the Fringe.

No Police action against Noel Clarke

It’s debatable as to whether this still counts as performing arts news, because Noel Clarke’s career is clearly finished already, but one thing that did attract a lot of disappointment: the one thing he won’t be facing as a police investigation, on the grounds that is doesn’t meet the threshold for one.

Now, I have no interest in defending Noel Clark. However, you’re going to hate me for saying this, but I fear the Police’s decision might be the (legally) correct one. Once you have the Police involved, you have to accompany “What harm has he done?” (possibly quite a lot) with “Which laws has he broken”? The alleged nude auditions and impromptu undressing imrpov in a drama school would constitute massive abuses of his position, and there’s quite a lot of evidence to back this up. But, off-hand, I can’t think which law this actually breaks. True, writing himself into sex scenes as an excuse for groping could well constitute sexual assault, but you’d have hell of a job proving that beyond reasonable doubt. There’s also the dick pics, which will shortly be made illegal. But you cannot prosecute for an action that was not illegal at the time it was committed. On the other hand, we are not discussing whether to charge Noel Clarke – simply whether allegations should be investigated further. Given the Met hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory over which crimes is does and doesn’t choose to investigate, it’s understandable that a lot of people don’t trust this decision.

What I think this does demonstrate is that the current system of holding wrongdoers to account isn’t working. Equity currently advises victims of this sort of thing to go to the Police, but the decision not to investigate Noel Clarke doesn’t fill us with much confidence. And arts organisations policing themselves is woefully ineffective when the accused as a respected and powerful figure pulling the strings. For this reason – and I say this as someone who usually agrees with them – I think Equity is being quite naive. Unfortunately, whenever the subject of theatres or drama schools being answerable to an overseeing body gets raise, the idea is still swiftly evaded.

To be clear, I’m not saying the absence of proper oversight proves Noel Clark is criminally guilty of anything. What I am say is that we have a system where, if you are sex offender in a position of power, it is very easy to get away with it – and if you are caught, still not have to face the full consequences you deserve. If Equity doesn’t wise up to this and demand real change, I don’t see who else can.

Northern Broadsides accentgate

Now let’s move on from a couple of important issues that aren’t getting enough attention, to something that everyone thinks is extremely important but isn’t. For about a week and a half, everyone was up in arms over a particularly dumb-ass complaint over the accents in As You Like It.

This isn’t quite a new thing. Barrie Rutter frequently complained that various people in theatre didn’t like what he was doing because Shakespeare is supposed to be done is received pronunciation. I’ve never really got Shakespeare (sorry Broadsiders) so my opinion doesn’t count for much, but I’ve never understood this obsession over “correct” accents. What’s generally thought is as “traditional” Shakespeare is not how Shakespeare was originally performed (basically done by anyone who Shakey could get his hands on), but a format popularised in Victorian times. Which is a perfectly valid way of enjoying Shakespeare. But Shakespeare is one of the most adapted and reinvented writers there is, and even the most die-hard Shakespeare purists are generally fine with transplanting the original setting to a new time and place. I cannot understand why it’s okay to set Romeo and Juliet anywhere from 16th-century Verona to 20th-century Mexico City but any voice other than a 1950s BBC presenter is unacceptable. On top of that, there’s gazillions of different presentations of Shakespeare on offer. If you don’t like northern accents, don’t watch that production – there’s plenty of alternatives open to you. And finally, if you fail to note the company is called NORTHERN Broadsides when objecting to sounding like northerners, I don’t know how to help you.

But … let us please keep this in proportion. We are not responding to a withering one-star review from James Delingpole. There is no outcry from Tory MPs claiming it’s political correctness gone mad. No theatre the threatening to pull the production for not Shakespearing correctly. This entire furore is because of one pillock who wrote a letter of complaint. Okay, there may be other people who quietly think the same, but do we really need to give them all this publicity. For about a week and a half it was impossible to hear about anything else. I will add: stupid judgements over accents isn’t a one-way thing. I’ve heard complaints from northern actors being told by major theatres they don’t sound northern enough. But honestly, if stupid judgements are being made on the sidelines, let’s keep them on the sidelines. Do you wish to make to issue about wider unspoken discrimination against northern voices? Fine, make it about that, come forward with other issue you’ve faced. But a week a half over something one random prat said? Surely we have something better to do.

Mind you, I’m making it worse by writing about this now, after this has all died down. Can we all agree to let this go and move on now?

That Mark Shenton comment

And finally, another storm in a teacup. However, this time, it’s not somebody making a dumb-ass complaint to a theatre but someone who is well known and has influence. And, what’s more, he’s someone who really should had known better. And it’s on the subject where’s it’s now obligatory for me to respond. In fact, I think I’ll get a few more things off my chest whilst I’m at it.

Since I’ve already probably pissed off enough people with hot takes up to now, I may as well notch this up a level and say that I actually quite respect Mark Shenton, for one important reason: he is not afraid to stick his neck out and say unpopular things that someone needs to say. When Seyi Omooboa lost her employment tribunal for refusing to play a lesbian character as a lesbian, and the whole theatre world was in celebration over this victory for tolerance and equality, Shenton picked up that Alice Walker who wrote the original book is in fact a massive massive racist herself.* But it seems that everybody else just didn’t want to know, preferring instead to stick to cozy consensus and carry on pretending their side is 100% the good guys. Anyway, I’ve barely been following this, but Mark Shenton has clearly made some enemies, which seems to be mostly theatre bloggers based in London. Why, I’m not sure. Where I have previously picked up furore, it’s been because he’s said he wasn’t offended by something that other people think you should be offended by. That’s a really petty thing to have a decade-long feud over, so maybe there’s something more serious I’ve not kept up on. Or maybe it really is over something this petty. There are a lot of petty people out there.

This brings me on to another hot take: I don’t have a particularly high opinion of theatre bloggers based in London. Very observant followers of my blog may notice that I used to be very supportive of the Network of Independent Critics, before I suddenly went quiet. Yes, I grew disillusioned. Theatre blogging is overwhelmingly a London thing, but I found a lot of their output to be uncomfortably moralising. Before you ask folks, yes #notalllondontheatrebloggers, but too many people had exact ideas over what opinions reviewers should hold, with rhetoric frequently insufferably judgemental, and sometimes verging on censorious. A far cry from the mutually supportive environment for people doing their own thing that it set out to be. One other criticism I’ve seen doing the rounds is too many London bloggers apparently deciding in advance that they were going to love or hate something based on loyalty or partisanship. And leading on from this is a suspicion that some London theatres are selectively inviting bloggers along who they can count on deciding in advance it’s great. I should add this isn’t uniquely a London thing nor is it uniquely a blogger thing – I’ve heard allegations elsewhere of reviewers for more conventional review sites not being invited back for failing to express the required level of praise for an average play. But one such play suspected of getting this brand of unearned praise was Cock.

And so Mark Shenton wrote a piece questioning this practice. I’ve read it, and I thought it was mostly a reasoned argument (and the correct procedure for disagreement is to respond by saying what he got wrong and why). But no-one’s interested in that – the outrage is when the said these bloggers applauded like, I quote, “autistic seals”. Grief, what was he thinking? The closest I can come to an explanation is that online, the term “autistic” is frequently used to mean “obsessive” in a derogatory way. Some people who otherwise make reasoned arguments do this, and they shouldn’t (obvs) – if you must insult someone online, just use a word such as “obsessive”. Of course Mark Shenton isn’t a Youtuber trying to be edgy but a respected theatre critic, which is why he should have known better. Am I offended? No, not really, that’s nothing compared to the shit I’ve had to put up with elsewhere in my life. Other people are. Is it reasonable to take offence to this? Absolutely.

But there is something distasteful about the wider pile-on. Whilst I understand the angry reaction from other autistic people, the outrage from other people looks suspiciously opportunistic. Solidarity only ever comes when it’s convenient. With a few honourable exceptions, so-called allyship tends to consist of: 1) language policing, 2) which actor to cast as autistic character in a film. Take it from me, there are far more pressing issues to address, but that would require making effort to understand a complex issue – far too much work. I’ve had bad experiences with is neurotypical people making the negatives interpretations of my manners or intentions based on choice of words or body language – and it is was of course always my fault of allowing other people to misinterpret what I meant. If you want to help, how about telling people not to make those stupid judgements? But that would mean you’d have to stop point-scoring against your enemies by making the worst possible interpretation of something they said, and we can’t have that, can we? (The example I have in mind here is that time a few years ago when everyone gleefully leapt upon Mark Shenton’s phrase “a bunch of prostitutes” and claimed we he dehumanising them to trivialise their deaths – it’s stunts like that which fuck over autistic people all the time.) Sorry, but unless you can demonstrate other times you showed solidarity when it wasn’t so easy job to flaunt your worthiness, your motives are extremely questionable.

So if you were offended by Shenton’s stupid comment, you have a right to be. Whether or not you accept his apology is your choice. But you should be suspicious over anyone who’s come out of nowhere to be angry on your behalf. They may not be the allies you take them to be. For all you know, you are simply being used as a beating stick.

*: To be clear: Alice Walker’s bigotry doesn’t vindicate Seyi Omooba. Omooba’s position was untenable not because of her views, but because she was using her views as a pretext to refuse to do her job. Alice Walker, on the other hand, might also have vile views, but that doesn’t stand in the way of adapting her story. If it ever did (say, she insisting on adding her opinions of Jews into the story), I would have no qualms over getting the play canned.

And one event from April …

There is one other bit of news that broke whilst I was writing this. Technically this doesn’t belong in an article about March, but as I don’t usually do an April odds and sods I ought to get to this now.

Peter Lathan

As most of you have heard by now, Peter Lathan, known to most for his reviewing in the British Theatre Guide, has died. In recent years he was the north-east editor, and with the odd exception handed to a deputy, reviewed almost all major productions in the north-east single-handedly. As a result, he was one of the best known names in north-east theatre.

His biggest legacy, however, has to be the British Theatre Guide itself. North-east editor was always a kind of retirement job – prior to that, he was founder-editor of the site as a whole. For all the panic their is over the decline of theatre reviewers in the national press, I do think heavily regionalised websites are the future. With the exception of some major touring productions, a national newspaper’s review will normally be of no interest to the 80%+ of readers who don’t live close enough to the theatre in question. Along with The Reviews Hub, the British Theatre Guide made sure that all parts of the country got a share in the spotlight, and everybody had a region to follow – whilst national editorial oversight provided a check against runaway sycophancy that local papers are prone to.

Peter Mortimer, Peter Lathan’s unofficial deputy, has been doing reviews in the last few weeks, so we should still be still getting BTG north-east reviews in the medium term. But it is very much the end of an era.

Things I wrote in March:

Apart from all that stuff, here’s what else I’ve been writing about. I’ve been having a pretty good run with what I’ve been watching:

Odds and sods: February 2022: Self-explanatory.

A Northern Odyssey: People’s plays to its strengths: People’s Theatre revived a play prmiering at Live Theatre, and used their ensemble to add to the play.

The Bone Sparrow: suddenly in the spotlight: Pilot Theatre’s suddenly pertinent plays about refugees, with a stand-out performance with Mary Roubos as Jimmee.

March 2022 Fringe roundup: Two small-scale plays seen in the month: The Twenty Seven Club at Live Theatre’s Elevator Festival and the unexpected gem Yes! Yes! UCS that had a low-key performance at Tyneside Irish Centre.

And that’s a wrap. Sorry, it’s late. Believe me, the thing that kept me busy wasn’t very exciting. Next odds and sods after June – in the meantime, follow my Brighton Fringe coverage for any further hot takes.

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