by Kelly Kanayama 

Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, came under fire recently for a Times article entitled “Lack of diversity not a problem, says RSC boss”. The article stated that Doran “did not want the middle classes sidelined” and wanted to maintain “equal rights” for “those of us who are white middle class”.

In response to accusations of racism, he then issued a statement on the RSC site claiming, among other things, that “The Times headline not only wilfully misrepresents my view, but reverses it” and that “I want to see the whole of society represented on our stages and in our audiences”. However, what this disclaimer notably fails to address is his prioritising of the white middle-class experience.

To avoid playing any more he-said-this/he-said-that, let’s go to the source. The quotes in the Times article came from an event at the Hay Festival this past Friday, where Doran was in conversation with Shakespeare academic Abigail Rokison.

The final question of the event (from a soft-spoken elderly white man) concerned the RSC’s “fantastic” all-black production of Hamlet. “Most of the audience was white. Does this worry you?”

Doran’s response, in full:

“Does it worry me? No, I don’t think it worries me, but it is — it’s a really important thing. Hamlet, in the speech that we’ve just been talking about, talks about holding a mirror up to nature. Now, if we as a national Shakespeare company are holding the mirror up and the audience see their reflection, and that audience is entirely white, then a black kid watching that might go, ‘Well, obviously I’m not meant to be there’. You know, a friend of mine traveled up on the train from Marylebone to Stratford last — a couple of weeks ago, and the whole carriage was a group of black — black students who were coming up to see Hamlet. And they were really buzzing with excitement about it, because somehow their faces were being reflected on that stage.

And I think it’s really important that, with the whole community, that we reflect that community, whether that’s, you know — and that’s not just black actors. There are — actors of British East Asian origin have very much less visibility than the black actors do. But it’s growing, and it’s really important that it does continue to grow, you know. We have Ayesha Dharker playing Titania at the moment in Erica’s Dream [director Erica Whyman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream]. I think it’s important that we reflect the communities that we want to be able to enjoy our productions as well. And that is not to say that those of us who are white and middle-class, or whatever our educational backgrounds are, don’t have the equal right or shouldn’t — shouldn’t feel that we’re somehow being sidelined, because it’s very important to make sure that the balance of the whole community is addressed.”

Rokison’s addendum, for just that little extra bit of white cluelessness: “And cultural ownership extends to everyone. It would be awful if only black audiences went to see that play of Hamlet“.

Doran: “Absolutely”.

Really? Would it have been worse than only white audiences going to see all-white productions? Of course it would, because that would signal an undermining of white cultural dominance. I guess “cultural ownership extends to everyone” is like the art version of “All Lives Matter”.

Credit where it’s due; Doran is aware that audiences need to see themselves represented in their media. He knows that seeing a black Hamlet, Horatio, Gertrude, Laertes, et al was hugely meaningful to those students on the train to Stratford. He also knows that theatre can’t be fully effective if it fails to reflect entire sectors of society.

Doran's inclusive theatre?
Doran’s inclusive theatre?

Yet while he may recognize British East Asian actors’ invisibility, even relative to other actors of colour such as “the black actors” (yes, all of them), he oversaw that almost-all-white RSC production of The Orphan of Zhao where the only two East Asian actors played a maid and a dog. His primary concern regarding “equal rights” pertains to the white middle classes — the demographic that Shakespeare productions and British theatre have been catering to for God knows how long — and whether they will be able to maintain their cherished status quo.

Do you know why Shakespeare audiences in Britain are mostly white and middle-class? It’s the result of a long-standing exclusionary perception of Shakespeare, and “the theatre” as a whole, as the inherent purview of the white middle class; only they are discerning and cultured enough to get it.

News flash #1: No one born after the 1600s innately understands Shakespeare. Unless you grew up speaking and hearing Shakespearean English every single day, you have to learn to grapple with it. It’s not a natural ability that the middle classes have and the commoners don’t.

News flash #2: Many of Shakespeare’s audiences weren’t middle-class. A lot of scholars, directors, etc repeat this fact, usually to explain why he wrote dong jokes (or my personal favourite: “Aaron, thou hast undone our mother”. / “Villain, I have done thy mother”), but don’t really absorb its significance. When he wrote, he knew that a lot of people in the audience weren’t fulfilling some kind of cultural birthright. They were just there because they felt like it, or because they found his work interesting and engaging despite not being affiliated with the literati.

There’s a perception of certain types of art as more highbrow, and therefore more middle-class, than others, as though appreciation and critical faculties are contingent upon socioeconomic security rather than exposure. And it’s a lie. It’s promulgated to keep the “good” art, and the power to create, in the hands of the white middle class where it belongs. Granted, people from some backgrounds are more likely to be exposed to the knowledge needed for in-depth appreciation of certain works — which allows the lie to flourish — but your ability to process that knowledge once you have it is down to you, wherever you come from, whoever you are.

“Obviously I’m not meant to be there”

I went to a lot of live theatre growing up, mostly straightforward musicals but with the odd drama/Beijing opera in translation/production of Sweeney Todd that I was way too young for (it’s about murder, cannibalism, and quasi-incest; I was seven). I even saw a few operas, starting with Samson and Delilah when I was five. Admittedly, I fell asleep at that show because it started late and was very, very, very long, but I was wide awake when I watched La Boheme at the age of seventeen. The reason I even thought of seeing La Boheme, by the way, was that I knew it was the source material for the musical Rent. Opera, as long as you have supertitles to tell you what’s going on, is pure emotion in a series of notes, but much better than that sounds. For instance, the music of La Traviata had me crying despite its truly stupid story.

Not the ideal RSC demographic
Not the ideal RSC demographic

My parents took me to all those shows because they knew I liked songs and performances, not out of a sense of cultural obligation. What cultural obligation? Mom grew up in a working-class, mostly Japanese neighbourhood in Honolulu; her parents were the children of Japanese immigrants from farming and fishing villages who’d come over as cheap labour. Dad was from a rural part of the Big Island of Hawaii, where for several years he lived without running water or electricity. He was eleven before he went to a school with indoor plumbing and a requirement that all students wear shoes. Both of his parents came from the Philippines as children; my grandmother was married to her first husband at thirteen, and had her first child at fifteen. My Aunty Jane, Dad’s sister, told me about being so poor that for weeks they could only have grass soup and rice for dinner. They’d watch the birds to find out which grasses were edible.

When you’re at that point in life, you’re not really concerned with being seen at the theatre.

So there was no onus on my parents or me to cultivate a taste for the finer things. Since I was a non-neurotypical, high-achieving only child and my maternal grandmother was damn good with money, my family managed to send me to private school. (That’s a little less exclusive than it is in the UK or other parts of the US. Hawaii has a lot of private schools with varying tuition fees, student body sizes, rankings, and so on.) Who would have thought we’d get from tiny, cramped boats of immigrants in the middle of the Pacific to Obama’s former high school in just a few generations?

That’s where I encountered Shakespeare for real. I’d read some kids’ graphic novel adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet before, mostly because a) hey, cool pictures and b) why not, but this was a level of involvement I hadn’t experienced. My English teacher in the second year of high school, Mr. Hindley, got us discussing, analysing, and overall really starting to come to grips with The Merchant of Venice. It was the first English class where I actually felt like I had something to argue about, and I went for it, because I cared.

At university, I continued studying Shakespeare as part of my English literature degree. When I did a year abroad at Oxford, I traveled to the Globe and Stratford-upon-Avon several times to see Shakespeare plays — not out of cultural obligation (to this day, I cannot say “the Bard” without doing a fake posh accent) but out of curiosity. It sounded fun. I wanted to try it.

Gregory Doran's 2006 Antony and Cleopatra with Patrick Stewart as Mark Antony
Gregory Doran’s 2006 Antony and Cleopatra with Patrick Stewart as Mark Antony

I saw Lucy Bailey’s Titus Andronicus, which was disgusting, bleakly comedic, and overall amazing; the Ninagawa Theatre Company, from Japan, doing a Kabuki-inflected version of Titus Andronicus (Aaron the Moor was played by a super-fake-tanned guy in a blond anime wig); a South African production of Hamlet; an incredibly disappointing Othello from Germany (everyone in it was white. Why); Much Ado About Nothing starring Tamsin Grieg, where I laughed like an idiot; and Gregory Doran’s Antony and Cleopatra, starring Patrick Stewart as Antony, at which I ugly-cried.

That last production comes to mind now in light of Doran’s thoughtless comments. It was ten years ago, and I still remember the sense of gratitude that a director trusted our intelligence enough to not jazz up the production with unnecessary modern settings or international transpositions — although there was a dance number in the middle, which could have been bizarre but was really entertaining.

I still glow, recalling it, with the privilege of seeing an actor who had truly earned veteran status bringing his decades of experience to bear on one role for one day. It’s difficult to describe, but when you see it, you’ll know something magical is happening that could only happen at that moment in history, and you’ll feel honoured to be part of it.

I still hold in my heart the feeling that this was real, thinking through my tears, maybe they can work this out if he just comes back, if they just talk to each other, even though I already knew how the play was going to end. That’s how good it was; the production was so alive that for a minute I hoped there was a chance it would end differently.

Don’t directors want those things from audiences — engagement, emotional investment, credulity, the act of remembrance?

Not Doran. Not if he has to choose between me and a white middle-class theatre-goer. To “maintain the balance”, he might have to shut me out, because in the fight for equality the rights of the white middle class are most at stake.

It doesn’t matter that that production of Antony and Cleopatra set a very high bar for all my trips to the theatre, or that I’d never seen Shakespeare come to life with that depth of emotion before. It especially doesn’t matter that I come from a background that demographically should barely even know who Shakespeare is, and yet made it halfway around the world to study him.

Yes, I want to see my face reflected on that stage, but I also want to see my face reflected in the seats around me. We exist too: the non-white-middle-class communities with the capability to engage with the white middle classes’ beloved Bard, who have been marginalized in favour of white desires, the way you fear white audiences will be if we get what we want.

Maybe they will.

Then it’ll be us out there, all our faces of colour wanting something genuinely new. And maybe then your theatre can provide something innovative and revolutionary.

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Kelly Kanayama is the Administrative Manager/Editorial Assistant at Media Diversified. Originally from Hawaii, she now lives in Scotland and carries out PhD research into contemporary transatlantic comics. She has written on comics and related media for SciFiNow, NPR: Code Switch, Bitch, Paste, and xoJane. Her poetry on comics and pop culture has been published in the award-winning Lighthouse Literary Journal, Room Magazine, and Ink Sweat & Tears. Other writing can be found on the intersectional feminist geek culture site Women Write About Comics and on Mindless Ones. She also co-hosts the podcast FONFLIF! with comics critic/author/scholar Douglas Wolk.

Her favourite comics include Judge Dredd, Preacher, Batman Incorporated, and Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX. Find her on Twitter at @KellyKanayama.

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3 thoughts on “Even with “inclusive” Shakespeare, whiteness takes priority

  1. This reminded me of a time when I went to see a play at the Young Vic. It was ‘A Season in the Congo’ starring Chiwetel Ejiofor about Congolese nationalist hero Patrice Lumumba. Obviously two things drew in a higher number of black audience than what would be considered as usual. This was for the obvious reason that Ejiofor is a star attraction, lauded by people of all colours and the other reason that the subject matter was one of curiosity. For me, the inclusion of Congo in the title told me that this was a play about people who looked like me.

    It was brilliant, if a little cramped with subtext that someone unfamiliar with even the basic Congolese political history wouldn’t understand; though during the intermission an elderly white woman turned to two young black ladies in front of me and said – with the straightest expression and conviction – “You never see blacks at the theatre, it’s so nice to see more taking an interest”

    Now her tone was non-malicious, she didn’t know that what she had said was rude, lathered in white privileged platitudes and ignorance. I wasn’t the one being addressed but I laughed out loud, the ladies side-eyed each other but politely nodded and turned away. The elderly woman sat back, unsure of what she had said that had been so offensive. I knew part of what she was saying, on a very surface level, was true. You don’t see people like us often because we are often in the minority when we are there. She just happened to be, this one time, in the minority and she clearly felt uncomfortable for it that she had to mention it.

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  2. What struck me was that thought that it would be bad if white people didn’t want to go see an all-Black production. Like, nothing wrong with an all-Black audience, but does it make sense to maintain this thought that an all Black production is for Black people only? Wouldn’t that be dismissive? White people thinking they can’t empathise with a Black actor? I mean, art is there for us to learn to empathise with one another. That’s why we strive for representation: to see our own faces on the screen and stage, and to be understood by others. We want that electric connection, that feeling that says: I see you, I feel you, you’re valid, you’re worthy of being onstage. I read it more like that. Nobody should be shut out of art, not to maintain some magical white middle class vs the world balance, and not for any other reason. I hope I’m not coming across as an All Lives Matter apologist here. The ideal situation is when we connect through art. All Black cast with an all Black audience is not less important or less valid: it has that energy, that excitement of connection.
    If you’re willing to engage in a conversation, correct me if I’m wrong, please. You’ll see from my pic that I’m white, if not British; I came to Britain to learn. That interview struck me as a man tripping over the foot in his mouth, but if it truly is subconscious bias showing, it’s important to discuss that.

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  3. I think this article significantly overloads the original offence, and selectively chooses what to quote in order to set up a straw-man when the original offensive thoughts are not so clear cut.

    Doran, it seems, is susceptible to the weird white phychology of the “black cultural threat”, and his comment implying that the white middle class audience need to be protected is ludicrous. But that evidently lives in his mind alongside more rational thoughts that understand how much to the advantage of the theatre, and to everyone, it would be if both the stage and the stalls reflected the truth of society. After a cursory “to be fair” comment the article basically expunges the second to dwell exclusively on the first.

    Therefore when the article appears to imply that Doran might think it a good thing if *less non-white-middle-class people* went to the theatre –

    “Not if he has to choose between me and a white middle-class theatre-goer. To “maintain the balance”, he might have to shut me out, because in the fight for equality the rights of the white middle class are most at stake.”

    – I think it is an imputation wholy without evidence and not tied to the interview answer quoted in the article. It’s clear he has some mental work to do, but even in that small snip of an interview he doesn’t exactly come across as someone who would like to keep POC out of theatre audiences.

    Also why not quote, and not merely link, what he says in his perhaps more considered comment, part of which is:

    “I want to see the whole of society represented on our stages and in our audiences and I don’t want anyone to feel excluded, whatever their age, class or ethnicity.”

    It’s possible a diversity lawyer helped him write this, but taken together with his contradictory interview response, I doubt it.

    Liked by 1 person

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