The “Shakespeare Cancelled” story made big international news back in October. It turned out to be nonsense, but that didn’t stop racist rhetoric about Māori and Pacific arts and artists appearing in the comments sections of media sites around the world. James Nokise wonders when those responsible will own their part in it.
Cry “Havoc” and let slip the dogs of war
— Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I
If you’ve been living a wholesome and fulfilled life, you may have missed a little arts story that became big international news back in October. Shakespeare was apparently being “cancelled” by our government.
Not cancelled as in his plays were no longer being taught in schools or performed in theatres around the country. But cancelled as in the term first used in Black American culture in their online activism (and hijacked since then by white western cultures as a pearl-clutching defence against social critique).
Even without knowing the facts, it seemed absurd. And it was.
Here’s what happened.
The Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand (SGCNZ), an organisation which for the past 30 years has promoted theatrical education and all things Shakespearean, had applied to Creative New Zealand (CNZ) for funding for the next three years, around $31,000 annually.
The funding was primarily to pay the salary of an executive assistant for the CEO and founder Dawn Sanders, and to support the organisation’s future planning. It would make up about 10 percent of the centre’s total budget.
Among its many activities, SGCNZ runs the reasonably well-known Sheilah Winn competition, which allows high school students from across the country to participate in performing scenes from Shakespeare’s works. In association with the Globe Theatre in London, the centre runs several other programmes that allow teachers, students, and actors to travel and train in the UK.
The funding application was for none of these, and there was no danger that any of them would fall over without the CNZ funding.
Remember that point: There was never any danger.
Creative New Zealand, which had had its funding budget slashed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, had earlier issued warnings to the arts sector that there would not be enough money to fund all applications. SGCNZ applied under the Toi Uru Kahikatea investment programme, as they had previously done for years. This time, though, the answer was: “No.” Except it wasn’t actually “no”.
As CNZ would later clarify in a rare post-funding release of the proposal’s feedback, it was, to paraphrase: “No, but we’ll fund you almost $12,000 up to the next major funding round, and you should actually apply to that round, because you’ll do better there rather than in this programme.”
Sometimes, though, when you’re not used hearing “no”, that’s all you hear. SGCNZ was aghast. To have funding denied for something as noble as an executive assistant for an organisation dedicated to bringing Shakespeare to young people. It was a travesty.
Had their application been approved, SGCNZ’s $31,000 grant would have been the lowest request approved for Kahikatea funding. The next closest was the New Zealand Opera Training School Trust, which received $36,000.
SGCNZ’s many supporters, livid at this denial of funds, were sent into collective apoplexy when the feedback from the application was presented. One funding assessor wrote:
The application does make me reflect on the ongoing relevance of Shakespeare, and question whether a singular focus on an Elizabethan playwright is most relevant for a decolonising Aotearoa in the 2020s and beyond. But perhaps this is a high level question for another time.
That is a fair question for Aotearoa New Zealand to ask itself in 2022. As noted, it doesn’t really have much to do with funding an executive assistant, and these are the kind of questions you’d hope the funding body asks of all projects. Further criticism from the minutes of the advisory panel really hammered the point home:
This genre [Shakespeare] was located within a canon of imperialism and missed the opportunity to create a living curriculum and show relevance to the contemporary art context of Aotearoa.
The proposal did not demonstrate the relevance to the contemporary art context of Aotearoa. The panel was concerned about the number of theatre organisations in the round and questioned the role and relevance of Shakespeare in Aotearoa.
That was just too much for supporters. The very idea that Shakespeare could be irrelevant to the New Zealand public, and actually part of a complicated imperialistic history. This went beyond an error of judgment. This was a crime.
CEO Dawn Sanders was confounded by talk of imperialism: “For one thing, the empire wasn’t even around then, when Shakespeare wrote it, so ‘imperialism’ is a strange word to use,” she told One News.
But the empire was around. It wasn’t called the British Empire back then, it was the English colonial empire, and their colonising majesties Elizabeth and James were heavily involved in growing it.
Leading the local Shakespeare Support Squad was lawyer Terry Sheat, the son of former SGCNZ chairman Bill Sheat. He wrote a nine-page open letter calling for a full review of Creative New Zealand. Between highlighting the situation of SGCNZ and the legislative charter of CNZ, Terry also threw in some quite amazing turns of phrase. Perhaps you’ve read the juicy soundbites on social media:
Shakespeare is part of my reo, as I believe it would be of a large number of New Zealanders.
Who elected CNZ to be an artistic Taliban?
Surely CNZ’s remit has to be wider than “Aotearoan” art and, among other things, should encompass making sure that New Zealand performing arts and artists are relevant in an international context.
But there are two statements that, when you put them together, get to the heart of Terry’s unhappiness.
CNZ appears to be busy, creating and/or funding new arts organisations in their own image to replace existing professional arts infrastructure and organisations and then progressively de-funding those original organisations because they do not align with CNZ’s philosophy.
The accusation, though wild, doesn’t appear too harmful except that, a few pages earlier, he specifically names the new organisations funded, and how much they got. He chose to put the full amount funded over three years for these new Kahikatea members, as opposed to the yearly amount he uses for SGCNZ. But see if you can pick what else they have in common.
Those receiving Kahikatea three year funding for the first time round are Te Rākau Hua o the Wao Tapu ($1.22 million), Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival ($1.6 million), Kia Māui Festival ($1.57 million) and Toi Ngāpuhi ($1.67 million).
That’s right. The Maoris are coming for Shakespeare! And if they’re coming for Shakespeare, they could come for you next!
There’s a reason this stuff is called dog-whistle language. It’s never explicit, so when it’s pointed out, the whistler can claim they were misconstrued. No matter how toxic the interaction has been, they’re in the clear.
So, no, of course Terry Sheat isn’t against disproportionately funding Māori and Pasifika artists. He just doesn’t want other artists to miss out because they’re not Māori and Pasifika. Never mind that only 11 of the 58 funded applicants are specifically Māori and Pasifika. Never mind that without the four new funded applicants, that number drops to seven.
But, as we’ve seen time and again, there’s a particularly sensitive nerve cluster in Aotearoa New Zealand that goes off when the descendants of the colonisers feel Māori have got one over them.
Suddenly, comments showed up online supporting Shakespeare. Suddenly, “Shakespeare Cancelled” was appearing in headlines around the world. Suddenly, politicians and celebrities were blasting Creative New Zealand.
Robyn Malcolm, New Zealand’s TV mum, called Creative NZ “complete knobs”. Michael Hurst, Hercules sidekick in the ‘90s, called them “just plain dumb”. David Seymour said the decision made New Zealand an international laughing stock, something he’s an expert on. Winston Peters, whose sharp ears can pick up any dog-whistle language, declared CNZ full of “overpaid sickly liberal bureaucratic wokester morons”.
Even Sam Neill, New Zealand’s cinematic grandad, said cancelling Shakespeare made someone “sound like a f****n idiot, and make NZ-Aotearoa look bloody stupid”. Before anyone could assure him that Shakespeare had not been cancelled, Sam’s brother Michael jumped in.
Michael Neill is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Auckland. He is renowned worldwide as an expert on Shakespeare and has edited the plays Othello and Anthony and Cleopatra for the Oxford Shakespeare series.
On October 17, he wrote an open letter to Stephen Wainwright, the CEO of CNZ, arguing that Shakespeare had nothing to do with colonisation — and, spurred by his deep passion for the bard, perhaps went slightly overboard.
But Shakespeare is not just a Māori dramatist; he has also become a Māori lyric poet.
Still CNZ stood firm. Their decision was final. SGCNZ needed a miracle. And then something genuinely miraculous occurred.
Jacinda Ardern held a press conference on October 18. It turned out the PM was a Sheila Winn alumni, having once played Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She’d heard the cries of the people, or at least certain cries from certain people, and a solution had been found. The Ministry of Education would step in to support SGCNZ. In her opinion, this is what should have happened anyway. The details would be ironed out and the issue was resolved. SGCNZ got their money, from a much more stable source, and everyone went home happy.
All that was left were bullied CNZ employees, whose contact details were available online, and racist rhetoric about Māori and Pasifika arts and artists in the comments sections of media sites around the world.
And what is maori culture? War dance, poi waving, weaving, carving. Hardly enough to build a nation on.
So, to be consistent, should Maori request the departure of all other European things introduced to NZ, like, KFC, McDonald’s, rugby, Lion Red, cars, etc etc
I am told that the money was used to teach basket weaving and tongue poking dances.
There was no apology for this behaviour from SGCNZ. They could’ve said: “Sorry, things got a little out of hand. We were upset and lashed out. And we strongly condemn the racist comments people have received. This is not what Shakespeare would have wanted.”
But they just got their funding and exited, stage left.
Michael Neill took down his letter, though the internet kept a copy for anyone looking. Terry Sheat’s is still up, though, and he’s very serious about that inquiry. Dawn Sanders was too busy celebrating to look back.
Then, a full month after the prime minister intervened, the SGCNZ Facebook page posted this:
With all the recent media interactions, SGCNZ wishes to express our regret about offence that has been brought to our attention.
Any hurt that has been caused by the article calling for a Public Inquiry into CNZ written by Terry Sheat, parts of which have been construed as having negative overtones, has not been intended.
We emphasise that we have a deep respect for the organisations mentioned in the article and all the people who work with and in them.
We apologise for any offense or harm caused if, by its association, SGCNZ has implied a lack of worthiness by or of anyone.
Ngā mihi nui
Considering the current chairman of SGCNZ is the former National MP Paul Foster-Bell, a particularly astute political mind, that’s quite the tone-deaf non-apology.
Also, it puts their connection to any hurtful rhetoric squarely on Terry Sheat and no one else. It doesn’t denounce his dog-whistling. It doesn’t mention specific passages, or the genuine harassment of staff that it inspired. It says nothing about Māori and Pasifika affected by the still ongoing “discussion” around the “Shakespeare Cancelled” narrative — or their part in promoting that narrative.
It seems SGNZ’s board has decided that they didn’t start this. If they had just got their funding, none of this would have happened. That attitude is better known as “entitlement”.
There is no excuse, short of stunning wilful ignorance, to behave as though harm has not been caused. For people obsessed with written language, their lack of engagement with what has been written, in their name, is confusing at best, and at worse obtuse.
A passion for Shakespeare is not an excuse to be racist, but it’s also not an excuse to skirt close to being racist either. It certainly is no excuse for not condemning the outspoken racist dog-whistling of impassioned supporters, particularly when they aren’t simply championing Shakespeare but your entire organisation. If your friend acts racist in public, and you don’t call them out, what does that make you?
No deep love of any artist justifies throwing a group of people under the bus, especially over funding, and especially over funding that never endangered your project in the first place.
Shakespeare has the privilege of being watermarked as a quality product across the world. Māori and Pasifika work has a range of barriers to overcome, and making them a strawman opponent for international Shakespeare fans just adds another.
The diversity SGCNZ maintains it supports and develops deserves better than the classic: “Let’s just move on.” It deserves an actual apology.
James Nokise is an award-winning comedian and theatre-maker. He has won the Fred Award for comedy, and his play Rukahu — a farcical critique of Creative NZ and its funding of Pacific artists — was nominated for best production at the Wellington Theatre Awards in 2016. At the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he guest-directed a comedic interpretation of Macbeth.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.