Theatre audiences are a poor show

Peter Ackroyd, in his masterful biography of London, animadverts that the entire city is essentially a performance space, one in which the notorious actors fret and strut, while the London mob roils and moils through the streets, providing at once the extras and the audience for an organic production that is ever evolving down the ages. But if this is the case - and I think his analysis has considerable appeal - then what can we say of the audiences in more conventional theatres?

For me, the theatre audience is the main problem with theatre. Sure, a lot of plays are flatly crap, but only the audience for an averagely farcical West End production will force me to leave at the interval, disgustedly shredding my programme.Actors are, as we all know, a pretty mad crowd - but at least there are small chinks in the seriousness with which they take their avocation. Audiences, by contrast, are slaves of a high-minded method to rival Stanislavsky's. Watching them mill about in the lobbies and bars, talking arse while they scoop ice creams and sup G&Ts, it often occurs to me that when all these individuals got up that morning, they were already resolutely in character as middle-class members of a theatre audience.

Titter ye not

If the proletarian mob galvanised political change with its posturing on the barricades, then the theatre audience is its bourgeois counterpart, which, merely by sitting still, extinguishes the revolutionary fire with a well-fed collective derrière. This wasn't always the case. Back in the days when the Globe wasn't a laborious fake, the theatre was indeed coextensive with the street theatre - through the Restoration and up until the heyday of Drury Lane, a trip to the theatre remained a vital part of playing a dynamic social role. But since the Victorian era, the main motivation of the professionals playing the audience has been complacency, pure and simple.

Agitprop, guerrilla theatre, the theatre of the absurd, theatre in the round, the square, the open-fucking-air - so moribund is the British theatre audience that nothing has managed to make it corpse; it remains steely, impervious to distraction. Indeed, arguably the more outrageous the play, the more naked and bemerded the cast, and the more it assaults the audience's cherished ideals, the more content that audience becomes. As the actors on stage prance about waggling their genitals and lobbing handfuls of excrement, so those in the royal circle titter indulgently and
rustle their programmes, for it is by this fact alone - their incapacity to be genuinely shocked - that they can also remain manifestly unmoved.

Keeping up appearances

I appreciate that they often claim to have been transported by this Enron or that Jerusalem. "Oh, it was marvellous," they bleat. "It really made you think." And perhaps it did make them think . . . of booking another ticket so as to have another opportunity to play their own favourite part. True, in recent years, the sluggish audience, like some ageing matinee idol, has attempted some new tricks. During the boom years, infused by more than the usual planeloads of Americans and invigorated by new money, the audience began to applaud spontaneously at the end of acts - and even scenes!

There was also a precipitate increase in the amount of hilarity. Heretofore laughter was frequent and disproportionate, yet almost always had a sufficient cause; now the tittering is continuous from when the curtain rises until it descends. The audience will guffaw at just about anything from Tybalt's death to Krapp's penultimate tape - and how mad is that? But the maddest thing of all remains the audience's inability just to walk away from it. After all, when the play is over, the Equity-minimum actors reach for the baby wipes and annihilate their subterfuge, but the paying audience simply heads out the double doors while stalwartly maintaining it.

It maintains it in cars, it maintains it on public transport - but, by far the most aggressively, it maintains it in restaurants and bars, where it feels liberated to loudly ad-lib lines of staggering banality, such as: "I'll have the calves' liver." While the deranged mob may have been repressed, there remains this other craziness: being compelled against your will to be the audience of an audience.

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.