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The Death of Theatre Monarchy

The importance of diversity in the theatre is more important than ever.

It’s January 2020 and a new controversy has arrived to add to the Britain’s collection. Popular discussion of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s exit from royal responsibility, affectionately known as ‘Megxit’, has been veiled by a murky fog of race and gender politics. These problems are larger than theatre, but we see their residual effects leak into stages and scripts all over the country.

Earlier this month, the panel on BBC’s Question Time discussed so-called ‘Megxit’. Rachel Boyle, a researcher on race and ethnicity at Edge Hill University, addressed the latent racism of the coverage of the decision: ‘let’s be really clear about what this is, let’s call it by its name – it’s racism. She’s a black woman and she has been torn to pieces.’ Actor Laurence Fox quickly came under fire when he responded: ‘It’s not racism. We’re the most tolerant, lovely country in Europe. It’s so easy to just throw your charge of racism at everybody and it’s starting to get boring now.’

Laurence, member of the pre-eminent Fox acting dynasty, continued, accusing Boyle herself of racism after she called him a ‘white privileged male’. It is not unknown that problems of diversity still pervade the acting world. In 2017, 42% of British BAFTA winners went to a private school. Kwame Kwei-Armah, a Baltimore-based actor, director and notably, a visiting fellow of LMH, recently lamented the ‘sinful’ lack of black artistic directors during a talk at the BFI. Inequality in theatre is still rife on a plethora of levels, but to what extent does this level of socioeconomic privilege that we perceive in some of the country’s most influential acting dynasties influence the way theatre is received, and run? How can we make theatre inclusive if wealth and renown are a prerequisite of the business?

Laurence is one in a long line of Foxes to have taken to the British stage. Son of British actor James Fox, who himself is the grandson of playwright Frederick Lonsdale, he and his siblings have gone on to perform at such coveted venues as the Garrick, and are frequent faces on screen. Harrow-educated and RADA-trained, he has said himself that his family name has had some hand in assisting his career success. Educations like these are accessible to the privileged few, and the luxury of a well-known name even fewer. Tom Hiddleston, whose alma mater differs from Fox’s only in that he attended Eton rather than Harrow, has spoken out about the increasing inequality of opportunity for actors of a lower socioeconomic background. He told Esquire: “Actors who didn’t come from privately educated backgrounds, like Julie Walters and David Morrissey have said, ‘if I was an actor now, I wouldn’t make it.’ The grants aren’t there. When I went to college, RADA cost £3,300 for three years. Now it’s £30,000. That needs to change’.

Fox has made a bit of a name for himself since Question time, ‘[drinking] all of these leftist tears’, as he has tweeted since. And, you guessed it, his tirade did not stop at Meghan Markle, telling the Dellington podcast: ‘The most annoying thing is the minute a black actor – it’s the same with working class actors – the minute they’ve got five million quid in the bank, every interview they do is about how racism is rampant and rife in the industry.’ To disregard the opinions of these actors is to disregard the mountains they had to climb, when comparatively it seems that Fox simply walked up a hill.

Laurence Fox continues to exist in a vacuum that ignores the crisis of diversity in the arts, comparing the ascent up the acting ladder to one as easy as his own. It is an echo chamber of tweets and interviews by Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins that bemoan ‘Woke’ culture, casting themselves as Crusaders against the ‘oversensitive left’. Theatre is implicated in the struggle for diversity that these figures clash against, pushing a more inclusive future away like a baby refusing its food.

RADA has made recent efforts to work against the previous inequalities of its student body. Their Access and Participation Plan was formed ‘to encourage applications from working-class and lower-income families, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, communities beyond the South East of England, people with physical and sensory impairments and care-leavers’. The list of notable alumni is uncomfortably white, but the programme is a necessary step in the right direction. It’s a little bit of a boost up that mountain, at least.

Felix Cross, former director of British ‘black theatre’ company, Nitro, has remarked that change will happen when ‘theatre in England stops being about the middle classes at play’. The Fox family, for all their talent and ancestry, epitomise this sense of the modern bourgeois. For their first birthday, each child may as well have been handed a coupon for the acting world along with their toys. It would be unfair to disregard an entire family with obvious talent for simply being themselves, but UK theatre is beginning to realise the cultural blinkers it’s been wearing for as long as it has existed as we know it. Cross, who struggled with the term ‘black theatre’, has suggested that the moment we see progress is the moment a black Macbeth is not heavily reported in the media. As soon as Don Warrington can play King Lear without his race being a notable deviation from the original text, we will have seen another helping hand reveal itself during that mountain-climb.

Writer and founder of Talawa, the UK’s primary Black led touring theatre company, Brewster, has considered the effect this lack of diversity and representation has had on the body of theatregoers as a whole. She told the Guardian: ‘I go to see plays all the time and I am extremely lonely. I am often the only black person’. In many cases, the problem we see with diversity in theatre is only emphasised by the precedent set by these dominant, wealthy, white leading families who pave the way for what is seen as the definitive way to act, direct or produce.

The Redgrave family, spanning five generations, is just another example of a family that dominate the British theatre monarchy. They are talented, yes, but arguably born at the right place, in the right time, with the right parents. If such theatrical juggernauts, for all their talent, had been born mixed-race in a poor borough of East London, their experience of entering the acting world would have been quite different. The problem is obvious, and long-standing, but one step towards a solution is to recognise it. Laurence Fox told Boyle, a mixed-race woman: ‘I can’t help what I am, I was born like this, it’s an immutable characteristic, so to call me a white privileged male is to be racist – you’re being racist’. Boyle spoke to Doward for the Guardian about the ‘knapsack’ of privilege: ‘Within this knapsack there are special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, passports, blank cheques [which] you carry around. You have no idea that it’s there, but you also have no idea of the privilege that whiteness affords you’.

Rather than equipping everyone with a knapsack, to achieve true equality we must eradicate the need for one. It’s easy to blame the entirety of the problem on your Foxes, your Redgraves and your highly-educated Hiddlestons and Cumberbatches, but their ancestral knapsacks are aggravations to symptoms of an already full-fledged problem. The issue needs to be tackled at a grassroots level, in a way that makes a career in theatre more accessible, and more appealing, to someone who may have seen themselves as separate from that world altogether, halted before their journeys even began. Theatre doesn’t need to be an incestuous web of pedigree, and shouldn’t be. To fully embrace theatre for what it is – a representation of a real or imagined event before an audience – we need exactly that: representation.  

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