With all due respect to the joys of culture, over the last week all of the most entertaining headlines seem to have focused on cricket.
While there is reputedly no such thing as bad publicity, following recent events, the cricketing community might take some persuading.
First, the long-awaited report from the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (“ICEC”) ran to 317 critical pages and did not make for pleasant reading. According to its Chair, “Our findings are unequivocal,” she said. “Discrimination is both overt and baked into the structures and processes within cricket. The stark reality is cricket is not a game for everyone.
“Racism, class-based discrimination, elitism and sexism are widespread and deep rooted. The game must face up to the fact that it’s not banter or just a few bad apples.”
UK theatre has generally worked hard over recent decades to reduce, if not completely eliminate, many of these ills but there is still some way to go. When it comes to racism and sexism, nowadays we could claim to be close to world-beating, if only in the sense that Boris Johnson always used the term.
Repeatedly, theatre companies have fought to establish new norms by introducing colourblind and gender-blind casting, occasionally to the detriment of artistic excellence but doing wonders for diversity and equality. The situation is less clear when it comes to class-based discrimination and elitism. The intent to take on these issues is there but delivery hasn’t proven easy.
Historically, plays have commonly been written and directed by those who have been to elitist educational institutions, and it was only in the 1950s that kitchen sink drama finally promoted the ideals of younger working-class folk. Even today, most plays are still probably written by the relatively well-to-do about the relatively well-to-do, although the theatre has introduced numerous initiatives in attempts to might widen the base.
Elitism is more apparent at the audience level. Having just read newspaper commentary on the ICEC report, TV coverage showed that the Lord’s pavilion was almost exclusively peopled by old, white men while the rest of the ground was only a little more diverse, with a larger proportion of younger white men, some white women and the occasional token person who appeared to hail from a BAME background.
In our major theatres, despite efforts to achieve a greater balance, the preponderance of elderly white viewers is still common, particularly since prices are soaring and many people find it difficult to make ends meet, without shelling out hundreds of pounds on theatre tickets.
As if cricket hadn’t enjoyed enough headlines, the Jonny Bairstow controversy followed by Ben Stokes’s astonishingly violent batting soon defiantly sent the ICEC report into the shadows.
Once again, there are parallels with theatre. Controversy is always good for sales, particularly when it is a storm in a teacup. When it comes to publicity, you can’t beat a Hamlet who behaves badly off stage, while even a drastic event such as a roof collapsing in a theatre reminds the general populace that our art form plays on.
Stokes is fast transforming from a personality into a superhero, albeit a deeply flawed one. In similar fashion, theatre increasingly thrives on the cult of personality, more tickets selling on the back of the names of TV and film stars together with the reputations of much-loved movies, novels and albums.
Where sport is likely to be unique is in its ability to deliver the unexpected. Going to Lords last week, nobody knew that Bairstow would find himself stumped, or Stokes produce what would be a one-off in anyone else’s life, though he seems able to repeat such performances every few years.
While it may not do so on quite such a large scale, it is also in the nature of dramatic performance to deliver the unexpected, since each presentation of a play to a live audience is completely unique.
The ceiling may not collapse, but perhaps an actor will forget his or her lines and be saved heroically by a fellow or in the umpteenth repetition of a familiar Shakespearean speech, someone will discover a unique interpretation that illuminates not only that moment but the remainder of the evening or even the run.
Many of us will be glued to our TVs or radios to see whether England can turn around the Ashes series over the next few weeks, but the good news is that this still leaves evenings free to enjoy the delectable dramas available on stages up and down the country.