These are worrying times for what some might refer to as high culture. In recent years, box office charts have been commandeered by superhero flicks and assorted sequels, prequels, spin-offs and reboots. Print journalism is dying a slow death, bullied into submission by a relentless thirst for ‘content’ over writerly craft. Amongst the rubble, though, one art form seems to stand tall, impervious to the vapid floods of modernity. Even now, theatre represents deference to a higher altar of capital-C Culture, conscientious objection in the Zoella age. However, for those who don’t know their Rattigan from their Riverdale, the British theatre scene can be intimidating, elitist and devoid of diversity. There has been progress in recent decades, but there is still work to be done, on stage and in the stalls.
The exclusivity of theatre in Britain has as much to do with perception as reality. Several of London’s West End theatres date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; established Edinburgh venues, like the Lyceum and King’s theatres, have been around for well over a hundred years. Their history, matched with ornate interiors and often well-dressed punters, can deter newcomers, who might feel awed or bored by the spectacle of it all. With all that archaic language and polite applause, it’s just so formal, so stuffy.
Here’s the thing, though. Politeness at the theatre isn’t about snobbishly upholding tradition: it’s about respecting the performers and the rest of the audience. Any anger directed towards chatter, ringtones and peanut-crunching is entirely justified if these actions are puncturing an immersive experience. After all, we’ve moved on from throwing fruit at sub-par performers. What needs to be done here is the demystifying of theatre from an early age, with further schemes to distribute free and discounted tickets to students and under-18s, as well as regular theatre trips for school children. Only then can we move away from middle-class, geriatric audiences towards a crowd more representative of twenty-first century Britain.
One positive change that theatre is undergoing involves efforts to improve the accessibility of traditional, sometimes impenetrable productions, without distilling the quality of the original language. Contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare are regularly set in locations such as high schools and psychiatric wards, their nods to today’s world allowing us to engage more with the story being told. Almost four hundred years on from the writing of John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the Edinburgh University Theatre Company will be staging a version early next year in The Hive. Yes, that Hive. Such a move, far from trivialising great works, allows them to endure and reach new audiences.
More troubling is the financial side of the theatrical experience. Shows like Hamilton and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child may have broadened the demographic, but proved prohibitive in a different way, with ticket prices straying well into triple figures. In Edinburgh, the more prominent theatres can still be expensive to attend while, during the summer, Fringe performers and producers often operate at a loss. When the people on stage are those who can afford to lose rather than make money, and the paying public are similarly middle-class, it is difficult to defend theatre from those oft-invoked charges of elitism.
Earlier this year, Rufus Norris, artistic director at the National Theatre, and Erica Wyman, deputy artistic director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, called out a lack of class diversity in British theatre. Their concerns are supported by a 2016 report from the Sutton Trust, which found that over forty per cent of leading British actors and directors had been privately educated. More than this, theatre in the UK, or at least its most influential figures, lacks ethnic diversity. This year’s ‘Stage 100’, listing the most powerful people in British theatre, included just thirteen BAME candidates. None of them made the top ten, while four of the top five were privately educated. An Audience Agency report from 2016 revealed that ethnic minorities were disproportionately underrepresented among theatre audiences. Where black or Afro-Caribbean citizens made up 3.3 per cent of the UK population, less than one per cent of the theatre-going respondents to the study were black. Only 3.2 per cent of the respondents were British-Asians, compared to 7.5 per cent of the overall population.
The issue here are the stories being told on stage, with very few taking consideration of audiences consisting of different groups. However, steps are being made, with one example being the superb Barber Shop Chronicles, currently showing at Edinburgh’s Lyceum. It is a joyous portrayal of black working-class experience, which doesn’t rely on cliched social realism or fetishised depictions of poverty. More shows of its ilk will, hopefully, redress the social and racial balance of Britain’s theatre audiences without the need for cheap tokenism.
A theatre may still be a daunting arena to enter for the underprivileged and the uninitiated, but things are getting better. With more female and BAME representation in the upper echelons of the professional sphere, a wider variety of experiences depicted on stage, and a Stuart tragedy being performed in Niddry Street’s most debauched premises, an inaccessible medium has become ever so slightly more accessible.
Given that numerous Edinburgh theatres sell reduced tickets for students and the Fringe- going demographic is getting more youthful each year, signs are pointing to increased theatrical engagement amongst teenagers and young adults. You don’t have to go in with prior knowledge; more important is what you leave with.
Illustration: Hannah Riordan