Racism and the RSC: why I was a sitting duck for the arts mob

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

Our ducks are back. Two wild mallard have spent the last five springs on the brook which gurgles past us in Herefordshire. Each year they produce a paddling of chicks; each year most of the ducklings are killed by predators. Our friend Becky thinks she spotted an otter, more likely stoat or mink, in the brook. The fluffy ducklings have little chance of survival. We wish the mother duck would nest somewhere safer but there is no telling her or her green-headed drake.

If I have felt kinship with the ducks lately it was because I was being pursued by sharp-fanged ferrets from the anti-meritocratic, politically unrepresentative, over-indulged arts establishment. In a Daily Mail theatre review I questioned diversity targets and colour-blind/gender-blind casting. I criticised the performance of Leo Wringer, a black actor who plays a gallumphing squire in a period-costume Restoration comedy produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Mr Wringer is a distinguished thesp but a duff choice for this role. He is too laid-back, too chic, insufficiently quirky to convey the physical comedy of a huntin’, shootin’, lurcher-obsessed, barking-mad Squire Haggard. Nowhere did I say no black actor should ever be cast in Restoration comedy. That is not what I believe. But that is what my enemies allege. The part played by Mr Wringer could be done well by Simon Trinder, one of my favourite comedy actors, who happens to be black. But it struck me the RSC specifically sought a black actor for this role in order to match the colour of the guy playing his character’s brother. I suspect they were trying to make a political point — to prod their white Warwickshire audience and to satisfy Arts Council diversity box-tickers. I asked if the RSC saw itself primarily as a political organisation or as an arts/entertainment outfit. The Establishment’s reaction to my review was blazingly intolerant. The RSC called me an ‘ugly’ racist. There was an El Alamein barrage from socialist actors such as Sam West and Robert Lindsay. Danny Lee Wynter thought I should be banned from theatres. An anti-Brexit paper said I did ‘not belong in theatre’ and the Sunday Times (once home to that brave critic A.A. Gill) tried to make trouble for me. Out, out, out! Out of our private arts world! But it is not their private world. The RSC last year received £15.4 million of public money — more than a fifth of its income.

Another ism. The Russian embassy, displeased with me for taking the rise out of its (v. sketchable) ambassador, accused me of sexism. The only ism I really like is Anglicanism. Early-morning Prayer Book communion at Hereford cathedral restores my equilibrium. No one speaks Cranmer better than the Dean of Hereford, and the Collect of the Day uses the fine word ‘ensample’.

The Mail gave me space in a two-page debate with RSC boss Greg Doran. He listed RSC productions which starred black actors but failed to note that I enthused about several of those shows. Nor did attackers concede that I am a cheerleader for Sir Lenny Henry’s Shakespearean career, nor that I defended Emma Rice’s pulsatingly multicultural regime at Shakespeare’s Globe (arts-crowd cowards remained mute when the Globe ditched Emma). Greg — a charming fellow taken captive by more politically correct colleagues — claimed the RSC was a champion of ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’ and ‘theatre must reflect the society in which we are living’. That sounds to me like an admission that it does have quotas. Then he claimed ‘major actors are cast not because of their heritage but because they are supremely talented’. Phew. Under Greg’s directorship, ‘major’ RSC roles have repeatedly gone to his husband, Antony Sher. Among us critics, the RSC is sometimes called ‘the Royal Sher-kspeare Company’.

Typical of support from theatre-goers was an email from a Times-reading, Remain-supporting doctor, an RSC regular. Although generally pro-diversity (as am I), she said she was often distracted by clumsily quota-driven casting. ‘I have found it impossible to discuss this with theatre-going friends,’ she said. Such is the McCarthyism created by our arts commissars and the equality industry. Seven fellow critics sent me ‘chin up’ messages but, in this atmosphere, kept their support private. Given the hate mail I have received, I don’t blame them. Some of these threatened my wife and children. One (a Guardian reader?) said: ‘Your son Claude looks gay to me.’ Actually, he is bracingly heterosexual but so what if he weren’t? What irks me was that the ignoramus made a spelling mistake. My superb son is called Claud, thank you.

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