22 March 1958: Barbara Castle, Father Hooper and justice in South Africa

From our correspondence.

22 March 1958

Sir, - Among the many letters I have received arising out of my recent articles on South Africa there is one from Father Hooper, which I feel I must share with your readers. Father Hooper is the Anglican priest and missionary at Zeerust, in the North-West Transvaal, near the borders of Bechuanaland. I have already described in a New Statesman article the fearless way in which he has identified himself with the resistance of the local African people to the government’s attempt to impose passes on the women. Now he writes:

Things are very dire here: much more so than at the time of your visit. In reply to your request for news I shall outline one or two salient matters:

1. On the Friday of the week after you were here (24 January) four people were shot dead and several wounded in Gopane, 35 miles from Zeerust. The wounded who could run did so; some have not been seen since. Those who could not run were taken into custody and kept under guard in the Zeerust hospital. The official version is that the police were attacked. The unofficial version differs from the official version – diametrically. Among the four dead were a youngster and the village simpleton. At the time of the shooting the police are said to have been assaulting an old man – his youngest son ran, and bystanders and this son were shot. None of the bodies fell nearer than 75 yards from the scene of police action. Quite a civilising mission, really. Sten guns; and a lot of pieces of person on the grass. We had been expecting this for months.

2. Three to five thousand refugees have left the area for Bechuanaland – figures are uncertain. They are being well looked after there. I was told in Lobatsi that they are scattered from the border to the Kalahari, and from Mafeking to Serowe. A similar number have left for Johannesburg, many passing through this rectory. One woman had a miscarriage here at the rectory.

3. Police and pro-government chief action continue to be less than benign. A large number of illegal fines have been levied, and the people are in a terrible condition – their cattle having been seized in most instances. As a direct result of police action we face a major famine – no ploughing, or no weeding of crops means that this year this district is going to produce almost nothing. This will doubtless be represented as a visitation from the White Man’s God. For this reason, and because now we can no longer afford legal defence (in one instance 80 people are facing a charge of murder for the death of one man) we desperately need money. Can you help?

4. Banishment of local people to Natal has begun.

5. Last Friday the government (i.e., Vermoerd) made it illegal for anybody to enter these reserves without a permit from the Native Commissioner – penalty three years or £300. This means (a) refugees cannot return if they wish to; (b) nobody has access to observe what is going on behind our local iron curtain; (c) exempted people such as myself can be banned from entering – I have no received notice of such banning – yet; (d) husbands from the towns can no longer visit their wives or children. Further any statement, verbal or written, which is “likely to subvert the authority of the state, chief or headman”, carries a penalty of £300 or three years. Most of the people are of course ignorant of this proclamation.

6. Our own position is more or less impossible. When I go to visit church members in the reserves, police vans (riot cars) accompany me. Nobody wants to see his priest in such company.

7. In spite of all this, three villages have again refused to take reference books for their women. I don’t know what it is about these people, but they are both courageous and stubborn. They say: “The elephant is now stamping us into the ground”. And then they get up and defy the elephant all over again. In the end the elephant will have to depart or tire, and then we may expect all hell to break loose. Guns just can’t subdue the spirit; or not for long.

Father Hooper has risked a great deal to make these evils known. In this he is typical of many brave spirits in South Africa. In return we owe them our support – moral, political and – above all in the immediate future – financial.

Barbara Castle
House of Commons

Barbara Castle in 1974. Photo: Getty Images.

Letters, articles and notes from the New Statesman's centenary archive.

Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.