'Theatre is a white invention' says leading actress Dame Janet Suzman

The 74-year-old actress was asked about Meera Syal's call for theatres to cater for Asian audiences

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The Independent Culture

Theatre is “a white invention” and in the DNA of white people but not others, one of Britain’s most respected actors has said.

Dame Janet Suzman was responding to Meera Syal, the Asian writer and actress who last week appealed to the theatre industry to do more to cater for Asian audiences.

“Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare,” she said in comments reported by The Guardian. 

The 74-year-old actress, who has played an extensive range of leading parts in Shakespeare's dramas and was made a dame in 2011 for her services to drama, was asked about Ms Syal calling for theatres to cater for Asian audiences.

She said: “Catering is probably the correct word. It’s as if one was ordering food for a special wedding where the tastes are different.

“Some people are vegetarians and some are not. I don’t know what to say. Until the Asian writers make plays that will appeal, how can one say that?

“Stuff’s going on at the National [Theatre], which is an adaptation of that brilliant novel written by a white woman about the slums of [Mumbai]. If that’s catering, then it’s brilliantly catered for. East is East, which is bloody well thought through. But it’s up to writers to do it.”

Ms Syal told The Guardian in response: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard any single race or culture claim theatre as their invention before.

“The sharing of stories between performers and audience stretches across every single civilisation beginning with the oral tradition of re-enacting folk tales or religious myths.

“But this shouldn’t be an argument about what theatre is or who ‘invented’ it. This is a more profound discussion about the relevance of the stories we tell and for whom we tell them.”

Dame Suzman, the ex-wife of former Royal Shakespeare Company director Sir Trevor Nunn, has  been a vocal opponent of racism. Born in South Africa, her aunt was the anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman.