LIBBY PURVES wonders if theatre has been seduced by fashionable causes

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to take offence! As actors’ union demands an end to gender-specific language, critic LIBBY PURVES wonders if our once-anarchic theatre has been seduced by fashionable causes

Sometimes you have to argue with actors. The latest guideline from their professional organisation, Equity, advises theatres, when urging people to their seats, not to address them as ‘ladies and gentlemen’.

Apparently, this expression has been dropped backstage, too. Several theatres, including the National, have agreed to change. 

The Royal Opera House, whose patrons may be more fiercely addicted to their status, is ‘carefully considering’ it. (Transport for London dropped the phrase years ago.)

Theatre and arts in general need an atmosphere of disrespect, of asking awkward questions of the present, as well as the past, including fashions in speech. It is not a ‘safe space’. A stock image is used above for illustrative purposes [File photo]

The thinking behind the advice is that we should not be defined by our gender. 

Partly, the move is driven by feminists who object to being classified, as, owing to past tyrannies, any hint of difference implies that we are an inferior species.

But mainly, it comes from certain campaigners for LGBT rights. They want an end to the idea that some people are male and some female — a few (such as the singer Sam Smith) now say they are ‘non-binary’ and want to be referred to as ‘they’, rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’.

The ‘woke’ attitude promoted by Equity and some (though not all) LGBT campaigners is that everyone can find their place on a long scale from ultra-male to ultra-female and hover there, uncommitted.

Barack Obama has ridiculed this call-out culture. As the former President said last week: ‘The world is messy. There are ambiguities.’ He went on to urge liberals to ‘get over’ the notion that ‘you’re always politically woke’

On the other hand, some who have changed sex — courageously and from genuine need — hate this idea. 

If you were born physically male and have gone through a great deal to be a woman, for example, you may well like the courtesy of the label.

Equity also says nobody should call an actor ‘brave’ — yet they often are. To serve a strong play by making yourself monstrous and hideous is brave, especially for a woman.

Tricky, eh? More than at any other time in my freewheeling post-Sixties life, words are becoming weaponised. The habit of ‘calling out’ wrong expressions lets everyone point accusing fingers, even at innocent people.

Consider that you can be attacked for calling people ‘coloured’ — as that liberal icon Benedict Cumberbatch once did while discussing diversity in the creative industries — but not for saying ‘people of colour’.

The ‘woke’ attitude promoted by Equity and some (though not all) LGBT campaigners is that everyone can find their place on a long scale from ultra-male to ultra-female and hover there, uncommitted [File photo]

Barack Obama has ridiculed this call-out culture. As the former President said last week: ‘The world is messy. There are ambiguities.’ He went on to urge liberals to ‘get over’ the notion that ‘you’re always politically woke’.

I am particularly interested in the way that the theatre, of all worlds, is embracing this new ferocity.

There has been uproar about gender-neutral lavatories. I reckon the problem will soon be sorted out by going all-cubicle — and the ‘ladies and gentlemen’ business will also be resolved. Maybe Left-leaning theatres can just boom ‘Comrades!’ and the others stick to a weedy ‘Everyone!’

They’d better not say ‘guys’, though, because Jane Garvey of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour condemns that, even though the Oxford Dictionary defines guys as ‘people of either sex’.

Anyway, that’s fluff. And, as for on-stage Shakespearean gender swaps, we all loved Tamsin Greig as ‘Malvolia’ in Twelfth Night, and Harriet Walter as Brutus slaying a she-Caesar. 

The Royal Opera House, above, whose patrons may be more fiercely addicted to their status, is ‘carefully considering’ it. (Transport for London dropped the phrase years ago)

But the Equity guidelines go further, with advice on things not to say to actors: ‘Avoid backhanded compliments or “advice” regarding appearance, clothing, voice quality, identity or the performer being “brave”.’

This chimes with a recent trend I have noticed as a theatre critic: condemning reviewers for referring to anything that, to put it one way, can’t be left in the dressing room at the end of the show. This applies not only to apparent racial heritage or any disability, but to the size, physique or facial features of a performer.

This is hard because, as a member of the audience, you are offered a visual spectacle, with actors costumed and presented as carefully as the set. So you want to describe how it all looks. Yet one critic got in trouble for calling someone ‘chubby’ and others for even noticing race.

As for fine actors with dwarfism, such as Warwick Davis, we fret over whether to mention their height, even if the director is using it deliberately. Some even object to critics calling an actor ‘beautiful’. 

And, as for voices, some grate and some are reedy, but, with an unfamiliar performer, you can’t be sure whether they’re putting it on or not. Better to stay safe than be ‘called out’.

The days are gone when a critic could blithely describe — as one did — Sex And The City’s Sarah Jessica Parker as ‘face of a horse, body of a xylophone’. 

Diana Rigg, for her part, collected rude remarks: for example, ‘Miss Rigg is built like a brick basilica with insufficient flying buttresses’.

My unease today is about this prissy policing of language. Theatre’s tradition is not prim and mealy-mouthed: it has always made a point of upsetting the Establishment, sailing close to the wind. It had to fight for that right: from 1824 to 1968, British theatre was subject to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office.

New plays were combed in case they corrupted the pure and ‘vulnerable’ audience. 

There is fun to be had reading the old critiques that struck out references to homosexuality and bodily functions. John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger (1956) was pruned even of insults such as ‘short-arsed’.

As time wore on, the censors themselves got weary. Miss Julie, by the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, was banned for showing an affair between an aristocratic girl and a valet. 

Sometimes you have to argue with actors. The latest guideline from their professional organisation, Equity, advises theatres, when urging people to their seats, not to address them as ‘ladies and gentlemen’ [File photo]

In 1938, it was reprieved, the censor saying: ‘The play may disgust some, but it can corrupt nobody.’

Hear, hear! Being disgusted is as valid a theatrical experience as being delighted.

Of course, we should be civil and tactful, but art has to upset people, to depict bad things. Actors need to be both sensitive and thick-skinned. Theatre and arts in general need an atmosphere of disrespect, of asking awkward questions of the present, as well as the past, including fashions in speech.

It is not a ‘safe space’. Nobody should hurt or belittle any individual, but a constant worried policing of words and expressions does not promote creativity any more than having the Lord Chamberlain back would.

Another favourite reading of mine, by the way, is about records the BBC once banned. 

During the Thirties, the jazz number Minnie The Moocher was blacklisted, not because it is about drugs — they didn’t notice — but because it contained the lines: ‘She had a dream about the King of Sweden/ He gave her things that she was needin’. This was ‘disrespecting foreign royalty’.

Censorship always ends up being ridiculous. The new kind will be no different.

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