Shakespeare, culture, and a policy for the arts

elections1Knowing the exact date in May 2015 of the next General Election has provoked discussions on topics that don’t get an airing during the usual month of campaigning before the big day. Recently, the arts has been the subject of these debates.  The Guardian noted that it was 50 years since Jennie Lee, then Arts Minister in a Labour government, published a White Paper, A Policy for the Arts – First Steps. It argued that everyone should have access to the arts, and they need to be embedded in the education system.

Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition, has now made his first statement on the arts (leader of the Labour Party since 2010).  He said he aimed “To put policy for arts and culture and creativity at the heart of the next Labour government’s mission.”, and echoed the aspirations of Lee’s report “to guarantee every young person, from whatever background, access to the arts and culture: a universal entitlement to a creative education for every child”.

It can be no coincidence that the Warwick Commission on Cultural Value has just reported after a year examining the creative arts sector “from film, theatre and dance to video games, pop music and fashion”. The report found a striking drop in the number of students studying arts subjects including drama, and a downward trend in participation in cultural activities by children. Other results relate to  audiences: publicly funded arts “are predominantly accessed by an unnecessarily narrow social, economic, ethnic and educated demographic that is not fully representative of the UK’s population”. Only 8% of the population make up nearly half of live music audiences and a third of theatregoers and gallery visitors, and Richard Eyre commented on the “absolute divide” between those who enjoy the arts and those who feel excluded.

The Front Row debate on 23 February, “Are Artists owed a Living?”,  brought together a range of people for a discussion at Hull Truck Theatre, including some involved in the Warwick Commission. The aim was “to open a national conversation exploring the relationship between the state and the arts”.  It examined the broad issue of funding for the arts and those who create them.

The 1741 statue of Shakespeare in Poet's Corner

The 1741 statue of Shakespeare in Poet’s Corner

Shakespeare, inevitably, got a mention. Not only are his works key to our culture, but economist Philip Booth suggested that public funding for the arts is unnecessary, since Shakespeare successfully worked in a commercial environment. Perhaps Mr Booth hasn’t noticed the many ways in which life has changed in the last 400 years.

Shakespeare is in a privileged position: his work is popular around the world, helping to attract tourism and business to our shores. Last year, 2014, Fin Kennedy wrote a piece proposing that theatre must take risks with new work, even in a time of austerity.

Shakespeare too can be controversial, and recently there has been an outbreak of disagreement about staging Shakespeare. Mark Rylance seems to have a particular knack for making odd remarks, suggesting it is “disrespectful to the author” to study the plays in school. The event where he made this comment was the UK viewing of the St Omer First Folio, discovered last year in France. The Folio was the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, and the only printed source of about half of them so it was particularly unfortunate for him to suggest that reading the plays was “the last thing the author intended”. Heminges and Condell, Shakespeare’s long-term fellows, didn’t think so: “Read him, therefore, and again, and again” they say in their preface.

Rylance suggests that Shakespeare should be cut onstage to remove offensive remarks, in particular anti-semitic lines. It’s a reasonable concern, with the recent terrorist massacres in Paris in our minds, though the whole “I am Charlie” movement was aimed at upholding the right to freedom of expression, including the making of offensive remarks.

Dominic Cavendish, responding to Mark Rylance’s comments, notes that “there’s almost limitless opportunity to take offence at Shakespeare if one chooses”, not least by some of his remarks about women.

Being experimental with the text is the theme of a Times Educational Supplement article. “My advice to teachers who are looking to introduce a more creative approach to teaching Shakespeare is simple: be fearless. Encourage play, questioning and experimentation.”. Professor Tony Howard, for British Black and Asian Theatre: “Historically “Shakespeare” has meant, and too often still means, “exclusion”. Every time we open up Shakespeare to more young people we shall make Shakespeare better − truer and more diverse.” This way Shakespeare, can help young people “develop their sense of identity by also seeing people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds working together to make art.”

Surely this was behind Jennie Lee’s White Paper 50 years ago, a document still waiting to be put fully into practice. Erica Whyman, RSC Deputy Artistic Director, has written a post on the value of the arts at this important milestone.

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One Response to Shakespeare, culture, and a policy for the arts

  1. Lar Bowe says:

    The recent Guardian article about Mr. Rylance was an eye opener on many levels not only the censorship issue which appeared fatuous. What amazed me was the comments on the “authorship” question which immediately went into another stratosphere. Its worth a look just to see how vitriolic the arguments become especially from the “Oxford” group. I knew the subject was contentious but never thought it was such a touchpaper.

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