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Now is the winter of my discontent

Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish has pissed off theatre Twitter.

In his calm, sober column  he wrote: “Over the past few years, Shakespeare performance has increasingly marched to a “woke” drum. Some would say it has been galvanising, a corrective against conventionality and Bardolatry. We’ve seen greater diversity in casting and much gender-flipping…”

He continues: “But if woke continues its ascendancy, the logic of its fault-finding mission (fraught with tensions between specificity and inclusivity) will render our national playwright as much taboo as totemic.”

This week, Lyn Gardner issued a riposte in The Stage,  stating: “Shakespeare would have long been relegated to a theatrical footnote if new generations didn’t take the work and make them their own… The moment Shakespeare’s plays will become endangered is the moment the Shakespeare police put up fences around them and erect “hands off” signs. But for the moment Shakespeare is doing just fine, and will continue to do so as long as we don’t claim there is a right or wrong way to stage plays.”

It was a bold thing to write, as Cavendish knows only too well the response of theatre twitter and cancel-culture. In truth he knows, though, that the vast majority of his readers agree. Also, he is never going to be a poster boy for the ‘burn it down’ brigade. Perhaps using the term woke now instantly triggers some.

Personally, I hate the phrase.

The Taming of the Shrew at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in 2019. Photo: Ikin Yum

The Taming of the Shrew at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in 2019. Photo: Ikin Yum

Indeed, this week Natasha Tripney writes in her new column : “There is no one way to stage Shakespeare; The idea that there is a ‘correct’ way of staging these plays – be that ‘the way Shakespeare intended’ or with ticking clocks and live video feeds – is limiting and blinkered. The beauty of Shakespeare is his elasticity. Stretching across the centuries, his plays speak to our past and our present. If one production’s not for you, there’ll be another one along soon enough.”

We live in chaotic times and the problem belongs to theatre, which has turned twitter into an all-consuming blood sport parody by encouraging a genuine concern about quality and artistic integrity to be hijacked and weaponised by all sorts of charlatans.

This, I should add quickly, isn’t Dominic’s fault.

Contrary to what some obviously think, this doesn’t help the case for being “woke” or pro-diversity. It dilutes and blurs it. It is possible to be both.

credit Gemma Whelan, Danielle Phillips, Rob Rouse and David Mitchell  © Johan Persson

Gemma Whelan, Danielle Phillips, Rob Rouse and David Mitchell © Johan Persson

I’ve no doubt Cavendish was being entirely sincere whenever he talked about preserving Shakespeare from being “cancelled” and safeguarding the Bard from a “woke” generation of artists who are intent on gender-flipping. He stuck his head above the parapet and was writing for his audience.

The sad and immediate result from seeing some of the deeply personal tweets and abuse directed at Dominic being, I’m as disengaged with some of my favourite people writing about theatre as I am transfixed by critics simultaneously complaining about shows being too long, too short or even “problematic”.

So, be in no doubt, then that Cavendish isn’t complaining about being hard done by. He is a professional critic who has been reviewing theatre for two decades.

The tone of his article wasn’t inappropriate. Forceful, yes; provocative, yes. But that is what his job is: to put a case as strongly and as well as possible.

Let’s not pretend, for the sake of looking right-on, that Cavendish personally selected the photo of actor Nadia Nadarajah from the Globe’s 2018 production of Hamlet as the featured image. Newspapers have sub-editors, you know. Nor is he a massive racist.

Above all, I would hope that it is still possible to write about and talk about theatre openly without all this collective fury and bile; there is, in fact, a nuanced and constructive conversation to be had. I am sure of it.

I suppose, my main concern with the decline in print sales is that this kind of bellyaching has become the only accepted way of evaluating and discussing theatre and pertinent issues surrounding it.

So, once I have published this blog, I have decided to cancel myself. Not.

Upstart Crow is at the Gielgud theatre, London, until 25 April.