Odds and sods: June 2022

Yes, I know, it’s closer to August than June now – for those of you who follow my projects, you’ll know what kept me busy. But there’s some bits of news that have happened since the end of Brighton Fringe that need some attention. Three of these things are probably some sort of good news, in either the sort term or the long term; however, the other one is a very sorry development of a once-respectable organisation who’ve committed the thing I hate more than anything else: hypocrisy.

Stuff that happened in June

But let’s leave that till last. Most of the news from last month and this month is about the Edinburgh Fringe; I will be leaving that for my Edinburgh Fringe coverage itself. But apart from that, this happened:

Quentin Letts strikes again

Apologies. I hear you all going “Oh no, not this one again.” Bear with me, there is a reason why I’m picking this one up.

As pretty much everyone has worked out by now, Quentin Letts is a theatre reviewer who makes a name for himself but being controversial and offensive for the sake of it. Until now, he’s been mostly active at the Daily Mail where he panders to an audience who like diatribes about the wokies who’ve taken over theatre, and the easy solution was to just not invite the Daily Mail to press nights – seriously, what are you missing? Unfortunately, for some reason he is now also reviewing for The Sunday Times. Anyway, the furore broke out all over again with the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of Legally Blonde, where the part of Elle Woods was played by a black woman.

Against my better judgement, I read the review (content warning: Quentin Letts). Now, if you think the story doesn’t work if the lead is played by someone who’s clearly not a natural blonde, I will defend you right to say so (although the obvious solution, as always: if you don’t like it, don’t watch it). This review, however, was just nasty, with far more thinly-veiled personal insults than anything about the show itself. That is different from what I’ve seen before. His infamous reviews of Salome and The Fantastic Follies of Mrs. Rich, attention-seeking drivel though they were, has a method: he chose his words have a bare minimum of objectionable content needed to cause widespread outrage. This one, I have to say, was bile from start to finish.

I have a theory as to what’s going on here. The problem with professional outrage merchants who provoke maximum fury for minimum effort is that people get used to them, and get bored of replying. The sensible ones call it a day and go back to being journalists, but the not so sensible ones can’t resist upping the nastiness in order to keep getting the attention they crave. Katie Hopkins went down that route, turning into a parody of herself until she became such a liability no newspaper would touch her. If Letts is destined to go the same way – and I suspect he is – my advice to performers on the receiving end is to give him enough rope to hang himself. Call out the absolute worst reviews if you must, but ignore him the rest of the time. And if (when?) he goes full overdrive and torpedoes his own career – well, that’s not your problem.

Vault Festival to cut its size

Let’s start with the good news: Vault 2023 is almost certainly going ahead. Cancelling a festival weeks before the start is about a financially disastrous as you can get, and in the case of Brighton and Edinburgh, they owe their survival to bailouts from various sources. However, Vault has been going full-on recruiting staff and applications have opened and closed, so somebody seems confident they can go ahead next year. Either they’ve got some decent cancellation insurance, or they have deeper pockets than we think.

However, one change coming to Vault Festival 2023 is fewer performances – or, more specifically, cutting performances in bigger spaces by a third. This is to allow gaps between performances to be increased: currently that can be as low as 15 minutes, they’re looking at something more like an hour. This doesn’t appear to be related to Covid or finances – simply having second thought about what’s safe or healthy for their working conditions.

Now, I have no inside knowledge of working conditions at the Vault Festival, but this seems like a reasonable precaution to me. I’ve heard various complaints about backstage safety (particularly in West End shows), but I suspect keeping things safe isn’t as easy as you might think. Unlike, say, construction, where you follow tried and tested methods, in the performing arts there a big push to produce something new and exciting, frequently on a low budget for what you’re trying to achieve. Which is all fine until things don’t go to plan. Postponing opening night is somewhere between difficult and impossible, and if you want to catch up you may have to cut corners. One such thing might be safety – when you’re pushed for time, getting someone to hold the ladder or check the electrical device might feel like it eats up too much precious time. Overworked staff are more likely to make mistakes. In a normal job, you can expect people to put their foot down – but if it’s a new creative project that everyone cares about, there’s more temptation to chance it.

So whilst I don’t know the details, I see where the Vault is coming from. As this primarily affect the bigger spaces, hopefully it won’t have too much impact on the artists on the lower rungs seeking a first break. And if the price of safety is less choice amongst the shows with higher production values, I can live with that.

Jews in their own words

Now for a decision controversial in some quarters, but one that I fully support. Earlier this year, the Royal Court got a lot of flack for its play Rare Earth Mettle, over basing a character on megalomaniac-in-chief Elon Musk and giving him a Jewish name. I commented on this at the time: in summary, I don’t know whether that was accidental or deliberate, but where the Royal Court really fucked up was not taking the complaints seriously when people pointed out the problem months beforehand – however, I wasn’t convinced the Royal Court was any worse than all the other theatres who sat on their hands for five years and pretended the anti-Semitism problem wasn’t happening. However, the Royal Court has now tried to make amends by commissioning Jews in their own words for September. And, I have to say, they have gone up in my estimation a lot because of this.

I normally have a lot of scepticism over all these plays saying racism is bad. There are three problems I’ve noticed. Firstly, most of these plays take no personal responsibility. For all their preaching about the importance of educating people in anti-racism, much of the time the message ends up that racism is the fault of Bad People over there, or society in general – but rarely will you see a theatre question itself that much. Related to that, the second thing is that you see a lot of commissioned plays about racism (or sexual harassment or pretty much anything else) but hear very little about what they are actually doing about it, as if proclaiming “racism bad” is an acceptable substitute for taking responsibility on their own patch. And finally – and this is based on my own observations of so-called neurodiverse representation, but I don’t think it’s any better for any other minorities – there does not appear to be any respect for agency. Artistic directors and programming directors aren’t prepared to give up their say on who does and doesn’t get a voice on stage; and I sometimes wonder if their sole interest in representation (of any minority) is to cherry-pick whichever voices provide validation for whatever views they already hold about that minority.

This is different. The Jews included here are all outspoken critics of a culture that tolerates anti-Semitism, and most of them laid into the Royal Court during the Hershel Fink saga. Not everybody’s happy with every bit of this, and it’s been pointed out the run falls over three major Jewish holidays. But nobody can accuse the Royal Court of cherry-picking token minorities to back-pat themselves and tell them they’re doing great. And if other theatres were as receptive to criticism as Vicky Featherstone was here, I believe we would have a much healthier arts scene.

So, surely we all agree this is a bit step forward, right?

Equity in its own words

But according to Equity, I’m wrong. Rant mode on.

If the words of one of their better-known representatives is anything to go by – and as the leadership of Equity has said nothing against this I am forced to conclude they are fine with this mindset – some minorities don’t deserve agency. Theatre should stick to talking over certain minorities, tell them what is and isn’t racist, and the only people welcome to speak for themselves are the ones who reinforce the cosy mindset that this brand of racism isn’t really our problem, just the fault of the Bad People™ who are Over There™ and Nothing To Do With Us™ (and definitely not in the least connected to St. Jeremy of Islington).

The incident I’m referring to is the reaction of Sean Biggerstaff, then a member of the Screen and New Media Committee, now (for some incomprehensible reason) a member of Equity’s Council. I won’t waste time quoting his complete Twitter tirade verbatim, but he said that Vicky Featherstone is, I quote, a “fucking embarrassment” for having the temerity to provide a platform to some Jews who have previously stood up for themselves (once, in one theatre, in the entire country). Now, I have been following this saga quite closely and I’m getting pretty good at spotting anti-Semitic dog-whistles, and this looks very much like the dog whistle of dividing all the Jews in the world into the Good Jews (i.e. the minority who provided validation for all their stupid preconceptions about Jews) and the Bad Jews (i.e. all of the others). He then back-pedalled and said he wasn’t objecting the their voices being heard as such, just that there should be more “diverse” voices. That, too, ticks all the boxes another known dogwhistle, this one being the idea that it’s only the “establishment Jews” who think the left has an anti-Semitism problem (that is complete fucking bollocks, there is overwhelming evidence the majority of British Jews feel the same). Then he back-peddled further and said all he really objects to was the Royal Court claiming these particular Jews were voiceless (let’s ignore the fact the Royal Court never said that for now), but I find it hard to believe Seany-boy would be so angry to call somebody a “fucking embarrassment” over a matter as trivial as semantics in a press release.

However, when you are dealing with alleged racist dogwhistles it is near-impossible – short of having direct access to a mind-reading machine – to prove that is what was intended. As such, I have no choice but the treat Biggerstaff as innocent until proven guilty on that front. But what is unequivocally inexcusable is his response to complaints. Even if his intentions weren’t racist, a lot of people thought he was. And, as I have said countless times, the one thing you NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER DO in response to complaints of racism is issue reprisals – even if the complaint is not upheld – and that includes public personal attacks as he did. Sean argues he was just letting steam off on Twitter and was only in a personal capacity. That is an argument the law does not accept. It isn’t open season on minorities when you clock off work – and certainly not in this kind of job. If you were a trustee of a food bank and you tweeted that immigrants don’t deserve to use the service, you would be out on your arse faster than you can say “gross misconduct”. Likewise an off-duty police officer who tweets that black people are violent. How is a person with responsibilities for bringing forward racism claims against employers supposed to do a proper job if he thinks it’s okay to accuse the complainants of ulterior motives as he pleases? Who’s going to come forward with that sort of person representing them?

I do not want Sean Biggerstaff sacked. I want him to be educated of his legal obligations. But it’s Equity who I have the real problem with. I have previously praised Equity for having a pragmatic stance to workplace disputes, and when allegations have been made of an anti-Semitism problem before I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt. But there is no wriggle room here, and if the leadership of Equity turns a blind eye to the actions of a senior elected official, they are knowingly complicit. To repeat what I said last time: if your organisation consists of 1% racists and 99% people who aren’t racists but allow the 1% to operate unchecked, your organisation is 100% institutionally racist. Sean Biggerstaff’s actions do not prove his is racist, but it does prove that he doesn’t understand the Equality Act – and if he’s unwilling to learn, he is unfit to stay in post. And unless Equity is dealing with the quietly behind the scene (which nobody believes they are), it proves Equity doesn’t see any of this as a problem. That being the case, sorry, but Equity, you are unfit to be representing actors.

Stuff that happened since March:

Right, just before I deal with hordes of Sean Biggerstaff’s fanboys hurling abuse at me for daring to challenge his right to dictate to minorities when they are and aren’t allowed to find racist, let’s finish this odds and sods the usual way. Here’s what I posted since the last Odds and Sods:

Introducing The Laurels (feat. Gerry and Sewell): My first look at the north-east’s newest venue, and a debut that impressed me.

The Ike Awards Hall of Fame: 2018: Continuing my retrospective of the best plays I ever saw, I look back four years to what wowed me, including a play that came out of nowhere at the Edinburgh Fringe.

What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2022: My first look ahead to a normal summer season in three years.

What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2022: A look at what was coming, but also a look at the shock implosion of this fringe’s biggest venue.

Brighton Fringe 2022 – at it happens: But once it got going, this year’s Brighton Fringe was of an exceptional standard, thanks in a large part to the arrival of the Rotunda.

April 2022 fringe roundup: Reviews of The Hunger visiting The Laurels, and Alphabetti’s in-house Opolis, both promising dystopian plays.

Red Ellen and Sorry You’re Not a Winner: Two plays at Northern Stage. Their in-house production was decent enough, but the absolute gem was a visiting play from Samuel Bailey.

My proposal for how to do content warnings: Believe it or not, the best resource I ever found for content warnings is what was once a joke website: Does the Dog Die? Yes, really.

What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2022: Buxton Fringe is the first back to full strength. Or is it?

We Are The Best (and more from June): I review Jack McNamara’s first play for Live, and also two comedy shows: Charlotte Johnson, My Dad and Other Lies and Criminally Untrue.

And that’s us up to date. Have fun. I can’t wait to have screenshots of old tweets in piss-poor attempts to take what I said out of context again. Bye.

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