(Hannah Ellis-Petersen’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/9; previous Guardian coverge is included below this article.)

Janet Suzman has defended her controversial comment claiming that theatre was a “white invention” by stating she was simply noting the lack of racial diversity on the West End stage.

Suzman sparked outrage from figures across the arts on Monday when she responded to comments by the actor Meera Syal, calling on the theatre industry to do more to pull in Asian audiences, by saying theatre is a “European invention and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare”.

But in a letter published on Wednesday in the Guardian, Suzman responded to condemnation from people such as Booker prize-winning author Ben Okri and writer Stephen Poliakoff who called her views both ill-informed and ridiculous.

“What I was referring to was a picture that I have of the West End or commercial London/ and British product,” Suzman wrote. “My impression is that commercial British product is very, very white.”

Suzman’s comments on Monday also implied that the repeated stagings of Shakespeare and Greek tragedies were to blame for driving away black and Asian audiences as the work wasn’t “in their culture … until the Asian writers make plays that will appeal, how can one say that?”



(Dalya Alberge’s and Mark Brown’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/8.)

One of Britain’s most distinguished actors sparked controversy on Monday by claiming that “theatre is a white invention” and it is in the DNA of white people, but not of other people.

Dame Janet Suzman was responding to the views of Meera Syal, the actor and writer who appealed last week 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,” Suzman said.

The Shakespearean actor, who was born in, and has worked in, South Africa and whose aunt was the anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman, has been a vocal opponent of racism. She was made a dame in 2011 for services to drama.

Suzman said: “I’ve just done a South African play. My co-star is a young black man from the slums of Cape Town. Totally brilliant actor. I saw one black face in the room, at the Print Room. I rail against that and say why don’t black people come to see a play about one of the most powerful African states?

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