Four theatre companies explore themes affecting diverse communities and consider the thin line between multiculturalism and tokenism
Back in 2016, when Paapa Essiedu was cast as Hamlet–making him the first black actor to be given the role in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 50-plus year history–there was an outpouring of positivity about the strides being taken in tackling issues of diversity in British theatre. But despite the changes in the wider theatrical landscape and the increased rhetoric surrounding accessibility, race and class continue to be factors in the exclusion of artists and audiences. As Essiedu himself summarised in an interview with The Guardian, 'It is all very well to talk about colour-blind casting. But you can't keep saying that because you cast a black actor as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice you're making progress – it is tokenism.'
With thousands of acts descending upon Edinburgh each year from countries all over the world, the Fringe is a haven for exciting and innovative productions. But even at the world's biggest arts festival, where audiences seek out unique stories and companies boast of their focus on lesser-known perspectives, there is a danger of falling into tokenistic practices.
National touring theatre company LUNG's Trojan Horse explores the story of a community torn apart by racial division and the culture of Prevent (the government strategy aimed at countering extremism). It uses the real-life testimonies of those at the heart of the 2014 government inquiry into the suspected Islamisation of state schools in Birmingham. 'There has been some noticeable shifts in the stories we're seeing on stage,' creative director Helen Monks explains, 'but the audience coming to see those stories is still very white, very middle class and very middle-aged. Theatre needs to not just be about educating well-meaning white people on the stories of "others" but actually reflecting people's lives back to them.'
Artistic director Matt Woodhead says, 'LUNG have always been proud to amplify a wide and diverse number of voices in all our productions. We are proud that Trojan Horse will be following this tradition and we're excited to be working with an incredibly talented cast, all with South-Asian heritage, to make this happen.'
Trojan Horse Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard of the Obie Award-winning Underground Railroad Game, which takes on the debased legacy of slavery, agree that theatre has a tendency to misuse diversity and multiculturalism. 'The theatre should continue to find ways to be a platform for the entire population it serves,' says Sheppard. 'We've pretty much failed on that one. Right now, theatre is a rarefied art form, and institutions, artists, governments and theatrergoers need to make radical shifts in what they make, fund and see to revise this assumption.'
'Perhaps theatre should ask itself what multiculturalism and diversity mean to an art form that, by its nature, comes out of people,' co-creator Jennifer Kidwell adds. 'Meaning, if we are people making theatre, why are issues around multiculturalism and diversity even issues at all? They're issues and they're leveraged because theatre has yet to free itself from a Euro-centric patriarchal value system as evidenced by the way decisions get made about what's produced, as evidenced by the concept of production, as evidenced even by the way the audience is situated in the room, and so on.'
'The main mechanism for [Underground Railroad Game] is a critique of the narrativisation of history,' Kidwell continues. 'If history is a retelling of the past, we cannot trust that exists outside our own subjectivity, we cannot trust that our telling of it is true or just.'
Underground Railroad Game / credit: Ben Arons Photography Novasound and Belle Jones' Closed Doors is 'inspired by the reality of a multicultural neighbourhood in Glasgow', but with a cast comprised of three white women, it may be easy to accuse Closed Doors of appropriation. They took steps to address this, however. 'Once we had developed the story we wanted to tell, we were driven to write and perform it with respect and understanding,' says Jones.
'While the three of us on stage fit the same cultural profile; Closed Doors is a storytelling piece. We never see any of the characters faces at any point. The designs use silhouettes to create a sense of who these people are without identifying them by appearance. This creative decision was important to us as it ensures our audience can't judge these characters based on what they see — one of the underlying messages of the piece.'
'Theatre, as a medium, exists to tell us stories,' she adds. 'It should be a true reflection of the world we live in and everyone should be able to see a bit of themselves in a character on stage or find an affinity with a particular story.'
Closed Doors Mulberry Theatre Company's Cry God for Harry, England and St George! is an example of a production that not only tackles pertinent subject matter, but does so without appropriating the idea of multiculturalism. Originally inspired by Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Shakespeare productions at the Donmar Warehouse, the company set out to make a play about young women taking ownership of Shakespeare.
'I do think that 'diversity', in particular, has become a buzzword within the theatre industry in a way that can be problematic,' says Sam Maynard, director of arts at Mulberry Schools Trust. 'For us, though, our mission is not about diversity, but about representation. We work with young people who simply do not see themselves or their stories reflected either on stage or within the industry more broadly, and this can be a huge barrier to them becoming more involved in theatre, either as audiences or as makers. We strongly believe that if you can see it, you can be it.
'We are proud to have an all-female cast of young women from British Asian backgrounds, with a majority coming from British Bangladeshi heritage. Central to our mission as a company is to ensure that these young women, who are hugely underrepresented on both stage and screen, have opportunities to showcase their abilities and to tell stories that are relevant to their lives.
'Part of our reason for choosing a play involving Shakespeare was to demonstrate that our cultural "crown jewels" can be accessed and owned by anyone, no matter their background, gender, religion or ethnicity,' says Maynard. 'The play that we have created is really about celebrating the resilience, spirit and energy within our community, and showing that a great leader can really come from anywhere. Most of all, though, it's about a group of people standing up for what they believe in – has there ever been a more important time for us to do that?'
Trojan Horse, Summerhall, 2–26 Aug (not 13), 3.15pm, £12 (£11). Preview 1 Aug, £5. Underground Railroad Game, Traverse, 5–26 Aug (not 6, 13, 20, 25), times vary, £21.50 (£16.50). Previews 2, 4 Aug, £15 (£9). Closed Doors, Summerhall, 3–26 Aug (not 6, 13, 20), 7.45pm, £10. Preview 1 Aug, £5. Cry God for Harry, England and St George!, theSpace @ Surgeons Hall, 4.35pm, 6–11 Aug, £8 (£5). Previews 3 & 4 Aug, £5 (£3).
Novasound and Belle Jones
Four women, forced together as their homes are evacuated by police, squeeze into a saree shop where it doesn't take long for tensions to rise. Award-winning composition team Novasound collaborate with playwright and performer Belle Jones to present Closed Doors – a story told through music.
Mulberry Theatre Company
Sayara has always wanted to be a leader. But does she actually have what it takes? When her community comes under threat, will she find the courage inside herself to stand up for what she believes in? As she persuades a group of young East London women to take on one of Shakespeare’s greatest…