By Sophia Atkinson
Quentin Letts’ most recent Daily Mail scoop has once again piqued public interest with inflammatory content. Part of the Katie-Hopkins’ school, Lett’s articles frequently make comments about an artist’s appearance or race rather than their ability. Reviewing Tara Erraught, the acclaimed opera singer, Letts called her “a pork pie.”
He was no less damning of the RSC’s current production of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, awarding his prestigious three-star rating. The article focused on Leo Wringer, playing Clerimont, a penniless youth suffering from disinheritance. Amid calls for the male love interests to be more “sexy”, the Daily Mail critic asked: “Was Mr Wringer cast because he is black? If so, the RSC’s clunking approach to politically correct casting has again weakened its stage product. I suppose its managers are under pressure from the Arts Council to tick inclusiveness boxes.”
Quentin Letts’ critics have obligingly focused on his criticism of classically experienced Wringer. Quoted in The Guardian, the RSC’s artistic and creative directors released a joint statement, calling the review an “ugly and prejudiced commentary” with a “blatantly racist attitude.” In a similar vein, Act for Change co-founder Danny Lee Wynter, writing for The Guardian, called for editors to “come together collectively on who is allowed to write these reviews” while on Twitter, actor, Robert Lindsay, said Letts “should be ignored.”
Although I sympathise with those opposing Mr Letts’ unfair and insensitive comments, calls for cultural ghettoization and media censorship, are far more concerning than Letts’ attention seeking clickbait. Critics offer biased, value-judgements on qualities which are inherently subjective. While proposing that casting is solely race-based falls more in the realm of the political debate surrounding quotas, the point still stands. The article is not defamatory, lacking explicit malicious intent and falling inside the legal bracket of fair comment. Letts putting forward his personal views opens them up to public scrutiny.
Consequently, it has been shown that Letts has a habit of finding black actors “miscast” (see Letts’ review of the National Theatre’s 2016 production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus) or foreign dialects “impenetrable.” Indeed, some might argue that this is part of a stubborn refusal to recognise BAME theatre outside of a “Wodehousian” perspective.
Yet, Letts serves a useful purpose; namely highlighting, perhaps grotesquely, the role of the critic is not didactic. Letts may be cynically ignoring the sheer wealth of BAME talent when he brands diverse artistic representation ‘box-ticking’, rather than genuine creative opportunity. But boy can he make headlines.
Photography: The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich Programme by Helen Maybanks @ RSC