When Hamilton came to London back in 2017 it made headlines in the theatre world, and not just because it entered the restored Victoria Palace Theatre with a Broadway parent production which had won eleven Tony Awards.
The musical retelling of Ron Chernow’s biography of American founding father Alexander Hamilton sent shockwaves in British theatre because its casting call advertised specifically for theatre practitioners from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. In an interview with the Guardian at the opening of the show in the West End, (now) Olivier nominated director Thomas Kail said he wanted casting “which reflects the world we live in”.
This move was acclaimed by many in the arts, seeing the challenge to the hegemony of white faces in most creative spaces as positive. While many theatres in the UK adopt formal “colour-blind” casting policies (and more still are trailblazing with gender-blind and ability-blind casting), Hamilton was the first major example of a positive discrimination in a Broadway show.
While these moves on stage saw the show propelled to new heights, with the show’s run now alive and well in its award-winning second year, there are yet questions to be raised about the diversity of the show offstage. UK theatre audiences are just as unrepresentative as the casts they watch and while representation on the stage is part of the path to increasing representation in audiences, it is by no means a silver bullet in dealing with the problems of the “whiteness” of UK theatre-goers. The same is true of the class demographics of audiences, with middle class attendees being overrepresented on the red seats they watch from across the country.
This piece is by no means an attack piece on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s extraordinary work, it is a moot of the fact that representation is not simply enough to transform British theatre into something representative of Britain in the 21st century.
Arts Council[s] (in their respective constituent countries) which control state funding to theatres, already release grants and investment into theatres which attempt to produce art designed to bring non-typical audiences across their thresholds. However the main challenge is how theatres persuade new audiences through their doors in “legacy” terms – not just once, and not just with novelty free or subsidised tickets distributed through established networks. How does British theatre become not just the exploit of our middle-class and white population?
The first, and main challenge, is that Council funding simply isn’t enough for theatres. One practitioner bemoaned to me the challenge faced by theatres of trying to be both relevant and innovative but also staying afloat. Theatres have to be competitive and make money – and often that looks like making theatre which is palatable and popular to the communities that are reliably willing to pay higher amounts to theatres.
This lines up perfectly with the second major problem which is that in raising ticket prices to what is affordable by middle class theatre lovers (in order for playhouses to stay in the black), you obviously price out those on lower incomes. Hamilton is one show that has had this criticism levelled at it severely: for a show that claims to represent the diverse nature of America, its ticket prices which start at $199 hardly do. The UK production is similarly inaccessible, with only a limited number of tickets available at “affordable” prices (well in advance), while the majority of ticket prices are in triple digits.
How do theatres provide high quality, cutting edge theatre which challenges society, commands a more diverse audience while still surviving beyond the end of the month? What if the answer lies in universal theatre, free at the point of use?
In true Social Review spirit, totally free theatre, subsidised by the government, is a radical policy idea. If the left want to dream radically about a total reformation of society, we must go beyond the mechanics of a reformed economy, workplace or government. We need to answer the question of what a truly equal society looks like. This could and should include ideas of levelling the playing field of access to entertainment; in a new Jerusalem, there should be no corner of society which is empty of working class, ethnic minority or disabled voices (and in this case, audiences).
Government funding, with the obvious necessary rock solid guarantees of money without strings (separation of art and state is the foundation of liberal democracy), could liberate practitioners from being forced to run theatre like a business for the benefit of those who are attending today and instead craft art which speaks to a wider audience, make work which is relevant to the world beyond.
The National Theatre, has attempted to diversify its audiences, but fallen well short. The National bears the brunt of widespread criticism from within the theatre community: how nationally accessible can somewhere be if it purely exists in central London? Plus, with tickets hardly what can be called affordable, the theatre’s subsidised prices tend to be taken by the normal cohort of attendees anyway.
There are incredible, iconic creatives across the country creating art just like this, speaking for and to innovative audiences, but how long before it becomes mainstream; and how long before those spaces stop being invaded by the theatre-going class? A radical left-wing government could lead this shift.
This isn’t a manifesto or a policy suggestion so much as a dream. A dream of a society for which art is at the core of its development: quality of life over growth, life over mere survival. Surely this is the long term goal of liberation through socialism? As Enjolras in Les Miserables puts it, “do we fight for the right to a night at the opera now?”
Without a doubt, there are streaks of hope within British theatre, examples of playwrights, actors, theatres and companies working hard to overturn the stilted nature of theatre consumption. Despite this, there is so much work to be done so that British theatre can be worthy of the Hamilton legacy: a place where immigrants do, truly, get the job.