Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Bridge Theatre new season - excited by new writing or disappointed by lack of diversity?

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr have announced the opening programme for their The Bridge Theatre venture – the 900-seat commercial venue near to Tower Bridge which marks their re-entry into the London theatre landscape. The first three productions, all booking now, are:
  • Young Marx - Richard Bean and Clive Coleman's new play about German philosopher Karl Heinrich Marx which will star Rory Kinnear in the title role alongside Oliver Chris as Engels. Directed by Nicholas Hytner it will have designs by Mark Thompson and music by Grant Olding;
  • This will be followed by Julius Caesar directed by Hytner in promenade, starring
    Ben Whishaw (Bakkhai, Skyfall) as Brutus, David Calder as Caesar, Michelle Fairley as Cassius and David Morrissey as Mark Antony;
  • a new play from Barney Norris called Nightfall, directed by Laurie Sansom.

Further ahead from Summer '18, we can expect:
  • a new play by Lucinda Coxon based on the novel Alys, Always by Harriet Lane;
  • a new play by Nina Raine about JS Bach, played by Simon Russell Beale; 
  • flatpack, a new play by John Hodge; 
  • The Black Cloud, a new play by Sam Holcroft from the novel by Fred Hoyle; 
  • Carmen Havana, a version of Bizet's opera by Lucy Prebble with choreography by Miguel Altunaga and directed by Nicholas Hytner.

The focus on new writing is something exciting, all but one of these are new works. And if we count them altogether, there's pleasing gender parity in their number. And that's good enough to get luminaries like Sarah Crompton and Michael Billington fawning over the season ahead.

But looking at all those playwrights, there’s not a person of colour among them. And delving into the cast and creatives of the opening three shows, all of them are being directed by white men. Furthermore, of the headline casting announced, six out of seven of them are white men. We can cling to Michelle Fairley’s cross-casting as Cassius as a sole beacon of hope but let’s not forget that Robert Hastie is already doing this much better and bolder in Sheffield.

There’s no doubting that there’s a number of issues intertwined here but once again, a big commercial theatrical season is being launched on the back of safe, safe decisions. I don't deny the harsh realities of the commercial world but it is just so dispiriting to see how little is being done to address these issues by the people who can affect them, whether Messrs Hytner and Starr, or Branagh and Grandage in previous years.
  • The Kenneth Branagh season (2015-6) - 5 plays initially, all written and directed by white men; 5 people in opening publicity shot, 2 women including Dame Judi Dench
  • The Michael Grandage season (2012-13) - 5 plays all written and directed by white men; 7 people in opening publicity shot, 2 women including Dame Judi Dench
  • The Donmar in the West End season (2008-09) - 4 plays all directed by white men and all but one written by white men; 4 people in opening publicity, 1 woman who was Dame Judi Dench!
Some thoughts
- Magnificent as she is, Dench is far from our only star actress but without the requisite support, how is anyone else supposed to join her above-the-title as it were.
- Same with any actors of colour 
- If you're going to focus on new writing, how do commissioning decisions remain so stubbornly white as well? Delving into (white) history won't help.
- And how the f*ck is the status quo ever going to be challenged if the commentary acquiesces so easily - the race to label this season as "thrilling" or "mouth-watering" leaves little room to call into question the age-old biases that are once again being reinforced here.

It's hard not to feel a little disillusioned by this all. Attitudes don't change overnight, they need to be persuaded, and yet the opportunities to change minds remain few and far-between. So the commercial imperative to keep programming 'safe' remains intact and so the vicious cycle repeats itself ad nauseam. The power and influence that the two 'Nicks' wield is an awesome thing in the world of UK theatre, I just wish it was being used here in a more creative and forward-thinking way.

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