Quentin Letts is a man of odious opinions. The kind of man who has you shouting at the screen and spitting out your tea when he comes on telly. I can’t say I’ve ever read his theatre reviews with much interest. In fact I can’t say I’ve ever paid them much attention at all.
I’ve read this one though. The Racist One. You couldn’t really avoid it this week.
To briefly sum it up: He saw an RSC performance. He thought one of the actors, Leo Wringer, was unsuitable for his role and asked “was Mr Wringer cast because he was black?”
It’s idiotic, retro racism from the 90s, a politically-incorrect hand grenade lobbed indiscriminately into the debate by a man who doesn’t give a toss. You can see him jabbing away self-satisfied and impervious at his keyboard, dashing it off before deadline. “It’s what I thought, so it’s what I’ll write.” It’s the kind of “What next? State handouts for Lesbian Muslims?” garbage a few elderly Mail readers will nod their approval at, before mumbling “empire… green fields…” and drifting off back to sleep until nurse wakes them for afternoon tea. You’d have to be going some to make it seem like a balanced, rational viewpoint.
Theatre Twitter is giving it a good go, though.
The storm of outrage against him and The Spectator writer Lloyd Evans (who tried to defend him) is nearly as unhinged as he is. As if Letts matters. As if anyone reads the Daily Mail expecting nuanced theatre critique.
Yet here they are. The call-out cavalry to the rescue with their angrier-than-thou comebacks and RTs, calling him a c**t, demanding other journos speak out against him, accusing him of hate speech, telling anyone who doesn’t condemn him in the extremest of terms that they are part of the problem.
This is not the reaction of a theatre sector at ease with itself. It’s the reaction of a theatre sector that is as scared and confused by dissenting opinion as Letts is by black men on the stage.
But he’s a privileged white man abusing his power! Yes, and who’s giving him that power? Who generated thousands of extra readers for that article?
But it’s an example of the entrenched institutional prejudice we’re up against! Yes, and the particular institution in this case is the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail. Which female/LGBTQ/BAME voice is Letts preventing getting a job there?
But we need to stop racism! Yes, but this isn’t doing that. What about all the people out there – and there’s plenty of them, however much you pretend it isn’t so – who think “oooh, maybe it’s all gone too far with this [insert name of marginalised group here]”? What’s your strategy for convincing them the sky won’t fall in if we have, say, a black, transgender Hamlet? Is it to behave calmly and maturely and leave Letts looking like some deranged has-been hack who doesn’t understand modern theatre? Or is it to scream “racist” and fill twitter with oh-so-clever put-downs. Like that worked with Brexit.
What are you scared of? Are the RSC going to change their casting practices because of what Quentin Letts thinks? No. Are black actors going to have fewer opportunities because Quentin Letts said some words? No. Do nice, right-thinking liberals outnumber right-wing commentators many, many times over in the arts? Yes.
If Letts’ viewpoint is that of a racist fringe imbecile (and for avoidance of doubt of my opinion on the subject, I think it is) why not relegate it to that status yourselves?
When you see an old fella wandering round town with a sandwich board saying “the end is nigh, repent or burn in Hell,” do you take to Twitter to express your outrage at his pre-modern theistic conceptualisation of the afterlife? No, you walk past and go about your business. Do the same to Letts. He *is* that man, gibbering ineffectually at the modern world.
Instead, people are actually campaigning to have him banned from getting press tickets. To what end? Banish Quentin Letts and his Daily Mail chums to watching all-white Victorian melodrama while the rest of us get on with “proper” theatre? At some point this gender-blind, race-blind utopia everyone is striving for is going to have to allow people like Letts in or what sort of tolerant liberal free-for-all is this?
Banning him, shouting him down is pointless. For a start, it totally misunderstands the effect a review has on people. After all, if Quentin Letts hates something, isn’t that a recommendation?