Australian: MEAA backs Sydney Theatre Company actors amid The Seagull pro-Palestine scarf protest

Alex Demetriadi: The actors’ union has backed three cast members of the Sydney Theatre Company’s tentpole production of The Seagull who stood in solidarity with Palestine during the opening night’s encore, saying they’d support the trio if any action was taken.

On Sunday, The Australian revealed how three cast members of The Seagull – the Chekhov classic adapted for the STC’s latest run by playwright Andrew Upton, Cate Blanchett’s husband – wore traditional keffiyeh headdress during Saturday night’s encore in a “stance” of support for the “occupation of the Palestinian people”.

The STC later distanced itself from the stunt, with a spokeswoman saying it was not aware prior to the move and that it apologised for “any distress caused”.

However, MEAA – the media, entertainment and arts union – backed the trio of cast members and said it would support them.

The union came out in support on Sunday for journalists who had signed an open letter, which, among others, urged newsrooms to treat unverified information from the Israeli government and terror group Hamas with the same “professional scepticism”, while ­declaring the current conflict “did not start on October 7”.

A statement on Sunday from MEAA criticised Nine management over a warning to its journalists who had signed the letter, saying any pressure from management was an “overreach” and “attack” on journalists’ rights.

MEAA chief executive Adam Portelli told The Australian the actors had a right to “publicly express” their beliefs.

“MEAA respects the rights of members to publicly express their views on this issue, and will support any members who are subject to disciplinary action for simply engaging in freedom of expression,” he said.

There is no suggestion the actors would be disciplined for the stance.

Two of the actors, Hugo Weaving’s son Harry Greenwood and Megan Wilding, have been contacted through their respective agencies to ascertain if they stood by their stance on Saturday and their reaction to the STC distancing itself from it.

NSW’s new senator-elect Dave Sharma, however, reiterated calls that art should not seek to “alienate”.

“Art and theatre is meant to bring people together with a shared view of the human condition and experience,” Mr Sharma said, who won a Liberal preselection on Sunday to replace outgoing senator Marise Payne in federal parliament.

The incoming senator said it was “unfortunate” if people sought to politicise theatre and performances.

“It (Saturday’s pro-Palestine statement) would have made some audience members happy, but also some uncomfortable,” Mr Sharma said.

“I don’t think the arts is the place to deliver these sort of overtly political messages, just as it would be inappropriate to tell, for example, the audience on the eve of an election what side to vote for.

“It’s unhelpful and undermines social cohesion. People are of course entitled to hold views, but it’s better to express them outside of a live performance.”

The Australian revealed on Sunday criticism from Jewish leaders across both the community and creative industries, with STC backer and Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Jillian Segal saying the move could “marginalise” Jewish colleagues or audience members.

Former Hoyts CEO and ex-chairman of the National Institute of Dramatic Arts Peter Ivany told The Australian “art should not be used as a vehicle to alienate and divide the audience”.

On Monday, Anti-Defamation Commission chair Dr Dvir Abramovich asked how many Israelis had to be killed for the same actors to “don the Israeli flag”.

“At a time of skyrocketing anti-Semitism across the nation, this immoral act blows on the embers of discord and fans the flames of anti-Jewish hostility,” he said.

“I hope that these actors do some soul searching, reflect on their values and apologise.”

However, there was criticism of the STC’s move to distance itself from its performers, and a call to ensure that any statement of support for Palestine was not automatically seen as being “anti-Jewish”.

“Advocating for the rights of Palestinians should not be automatically considered anti-Semitic,” NSW Civil Liberties Council president Lydia Shelly said.

“The arts have always been a domain where controversial ideas can be raised, where viewers are forced to think deeply about an issue.

“Its end point isn’t always to unite us, but rather to challenge us. It is a sad reflection of the current times when the arts have to modify, abandon or self-censor under threats that they will lose funding.”

Greens NSW MP Jenny Leong criticised the STC.

“Imagine apologising for ‘any distress caused’ as a result of three actors wearing a scarf during the encore of a performance,” the MP wrote on social-media platform X, noting three students were shot in the US over the weekend while wearing keffiyehs.

“You can’t be serious, Sydney Theatre Company – there is a horrifying genocide going on with massive breaches of international law. That’s distressing.”