BONNIE GREER: Quentin Letts doesn't belong in theatre

PUBLISHED: 13:00 13 April 2018

Greg Barnett as Belvoir and Leo Wringer as Elder Clerimont in The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich

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The Daily Mail’s theatre critic has been accused of racism in his review of a play, says BONNIE GREER. He certainly doesn’t understand theatre

Twitter has just experienced a first: a theatre critic set it ablaze.

That milestone belongs to the Daily Mail’s parliamentary sketch-writer by day and theatre reviewer by night, Quentin Letts. He achieved this social media distinction as a result of a review he wrote for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich a 17th century, newly-discovered play written by Mary Pix.

Pix, a contemporary of the more well-known Aphra Behn, wrote in the rambunctious, and satirical style known as Restoration Comedy. The RSC bills the play as: “Mrs Rich, a wealthy widow, aspires to rub shoulders with the great and good and perhaps even gain a title. Unfortunately, she’s not the only one after Sir John Roverhead!”

The section of the Daily Mail reviewer’s critique that caused some members of the theatre community to call for the equivalent of Letts’ head on a pike – banishment from theatres – was his assessment of one member of the Company, the distinguished actor and theatre stalwart Leo Wringer.

He wrote: “There is no way he (Leo Wringer) is a honking Hooray of the sort that has infested the muddier reaches of England’s shires for centuries. He is too cool, too mature, not chinless or daft or funny enough. Was Mr Wringer cast because he is black? If so, the RSC’s clunking approach to politically correct casting has again weakened its stage product. I suppose its managers are under pressure from the Arts Council to tick inclusiveness boxes, but at some point they are going to have to decide if their core business is drama or social engineering.”

The RSC replied: “We are shocked and deeply troubled by Quentin Letts’ review... in which he seems to demonstrate a blatantly racist attitude to a member of the cast. We are very proud to be working with every member of the Company, each of whom has been asked to join us in Stratford because we value and recognise their unique skills and talents. Our approach to casting is to seek the most exciting individual for each role and in doing so to create a repertoire of the highest quality. We are proud that this ensures our casts are also representative of the diversity of the United Kingdom... We salute the whole cast for their excellent work on the production, support them unreservedly and hope that they can begin to put behind them this ugly and prejudiced commentary.”

Letts, a man who prides himself on being ‘anti-PC’ and a kind of paladin of the shires with book titles like Patronising Bastards, tweeted a rather weasel-like reply, for which he was rightly excoriated: “Am told RSC has attacked me for racism. Oh come off it. I was merely questioning a clumsy colour-blind casting policy which itself patronises actors and audiences.”

Full disclosure: Letts awarded one star to my last play, The Hotel Cerise, which was about an African American family, and set on a black-owned summer resort. The story played in real time, right up to a week before the 2016 US election.

But the reason I have the review on my wall is this line: “We are in the year 2016, the final scene happening on the day before the presidential election. Donald Trump is apparently ‘going to win’. Now there’s a problem. When Ms Greer finished writing the play, Mr Trump may possibly have looked a victor but at present that seems unlikely. The play thus loses any urgency it might have had.”

That old axiom, ‘if you want a friend, get a dog’ applies not only to politics, but also to theatre critics. They are not there to be nice nor even to be fair. They are also not expected to be prescient, nor even intelligent. Their criticism is opinion and the opinion matters, depending on their own reputation and oftentimes the medium that criticism comes through.

The Daily Mail is what is known as a ‘legacy paper’. Their reviews exist for a long time. Mine is still there after almost two years, so what is written matters. Freedom of speech is the most important thing.

But Letts crossed the line.

The assumption could be made that what he meant was that one of the reasons that Wringer could not be in the world of Mary Pix’s play is because of the colour of his skin. It is this that has seen him accused of racism. It is certainly a profound misunderstanding of the nature of theatre. And stupid.

On Twitter, one user, in support of Letts, wrote: “It often jars to see a black actor in a part when it is obviously out of context. I’m thinking of a recent production of Fiddler On The Roof, where an actress playing one of Tevye’s daughters was black. Got me wondering whether the Fiddler had been playing away!”

Someone else responded, asking whether the tweeter wondered where all the music came from? What village has an orchestra? How were they singing? And what was the deal with all the dancing; and speaking English?

Twitter world was full of all sorts of suggestions for punishment of Letts. But none could come near the glory of the best theatre revenge movie ever: Theatre of Blood (1973).

It stars the late, great Vincent Price as the esteemed and bitter actor Edward Lionheart, and Dame Diana Rigg as his beloved daughter and accomplice, Edwina.

The storyline revolves around Lionheart’s snub at an awards ceremony. We first see him attempting suicide in the Thames. But after being rescued by a rather sinister group of squatters, Lionheart begins life anew.

Two years later, on the Ides Of March, he sets out to exact his revenge on those who failed to see his genius. Each transgressing critic is murdered in a manner similar to a scene in Shakespeare.

The critics all have wonderful Restoration Theatre–type names: Trevor Dickman, Peregrine Devlin, Oliver Larding, Hector Snipe, Solomon Psaltery. And there is, of course, a Sgt Dogge and Inspector Boot.

After all this, Lionheart’s own demise has to be truly majestic. A group of squatters kills Edwina – who, by the way, is despatched with the award statue finally given to Lionheart by one of his enemies before he is brutally killed. Her death, of course, gives her the role of ‘Cordelia’. Lionheart ‘Lear’ retreats, carrying her body to the roof and delivering Lear’s final monologue before the roof caves in, sending him to his death.

No one is suggesting that Letts deserves the Theatre of Blood critic-despatch. He is not interesting enough.

But his suggestion that a human being is incapable of playing a role based on the colour of his skin, goes against everything the theatre is trying to do now.

And it really does not matter, as he tweeted: “Many thanks to numerous fellow critics and journos re RSC’s bizarre foot-stamping. Being on hols, I am rather missing the hoo-hah, happily.”

Too bad he can’t make his hols permanent.

His review denies the agency of the actor he singled out. It sends a negative signal to all those not in the tiny world of Quentin Letts who want to be a part of British, European and world theatre.

Diversity may mean nothing to Letts, but to the vineyard he toils in, it does. This is what makes him 100% surplus to requirements.

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