Let’s party like it’s 1968: Sarah Fortescue on censorship in the UK’s theatres

Few would argue that political movements have been hindered by the arrival of the Internet. It’s 2015; Facebook has 1,490 million users, in the UK 59% of the population has an account. As a result, online activism is rife. So why are we so intent on censoring ourselves?

In part, the answer lies in respect. With great power comes great responsibility, so they say, and there are some things best left unsaid. As a female, I’ve benefitted from the latest wave of feminism, supported by online campaigns. Seeing people challenge issues that concern them is hugely liberating, but seeing conversations shut down from above is infuriating.

And it’s not just users of Reddit, whose communications director was recently sacked, reportedly for her reluctance to commercialise the site’s Ask Me Anything series, who have cause for concern. I work in theatre. I adore the freedom of it: boundaries breached on stage, unspeakable things spoken, challenging food for thought served in the not-so-safe space of a playhouse. Recently, though, something’s been stirring.

In June, during a performance of Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House, audience members booed at a staged rape scene. Instead of the intended catharsis, the accusation was that of ‘glorifying’ rape – something the director vehemently denied.

Just a few weeks ago, a National Youth Theatre performance called Homegrown, inspired by three British schoolgirls’ radicalisation and subsequent joining of Islamic State, was cancelled with inadequate reasoning. Its creators claimed that “voices had been silenced”. I agree. As a former member of the National Youth Theatre, I can’t say I’ve ever been in a more forgiving, understanding – albeit challenging – environment. The people are among the most open-minded I’ve met; I’ve little doubt the material would have been handled with the utmost care by the show’s creators.

Could the same be said for Clint Eastwood earlier this year, when directing his controversial American Sniper, the highest grossing war movie of all time? Well, it’s a matter of perspective. And this is what’s troubling me: agree with them or not, without controversial viewpoints we’ll only ever have a half-told story.

Rewind to 1968. As political protests around the world escalated, British society – through British theatre – took an enormous leap forward. We said goodbye to the overreaching power of a narrow-minded, backward-looking Lord Chamberlain. We wrote our way into a more progressive 20th century, with the backing of the Theatres Act 1968, which abolished theatre censorship in the UK. We refused to be lectured, banished silencing from above, freed the creative impulses of writers and gave control to the artists.

Almost half a century later, we’re regressing – not through force, but by choice. Whether imposed by the state, by booing audience members, or by nervous producers, censorship is wrong. It takes choice away from the audience for whom the art was created. It inhibits freedom and quashes conversations before they’ve begun. Don’t let’s turn into Russia, where shows are cancelled at the first sign of controversy.

We’re better than that. So rise above it, argue with it, challenge it, but don’t silence it. Some voices need to be heard.

Filed under: Art & Photography, Politics