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Culture 15/12/2017

Why the Royal Court was wrong to shut down Rita, Sue and Bob Too

The 1987 film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too

Editor's note: Since the publication of this article, the Royal Court has reversed its decision to cancel performances of Rita, Sue and Bob Too

The Royal Court’s decision to cancel performances of Andrea Dunbar’s play Rita, Sue and Bob Too clearly sprung from good intentions. The play is an 80s comedy in which two teenage girls have a sexual relationship with a married man.

Its co-director Max Stafford-Clark, who directed the original production as well, is facing allegations of making lewd comments to a member of staff, while the theatre’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone has been playing a leading part in addressing sexual harassment within the theatre world following the Weinstein fallout. The theatre stated that it had heard 150 stories of sexual harassment and abuse as part of a day of action on the same stage where the play would be performed and that the staging “with its themes of grooming and abuses of power on young women” as a result felt “highly conflictual”. But this well-meaning move is in fact a dangerous act of self-censorship, in which the theatre has confused its role as a space for creative expression with the challenges it faces as an administrator and manager in the post-Weinstein world.

This is the latest instance of moral panic. The play is no longer considered fit for public consumption in the current context. The work itself in fact startlingly lacks moral judgment and reflects the racial and sexual prejudices of its time, written by a young working-class playwright who based the story on her own life. There is a telling scene in the film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too where a nosy neighbour calls the police when a young British-Pakistani comes calling, but takes no action when he sees an adult male cavorting with under-age girls. The teenagers are viewed as “sluts” in the local community rather than as the victims of a predator. It may be discomfiting to watch a play on the subject that is funny, but surely this is in fact the ideal time to see a play from a different era that may help us to examine our own age with more insight and even give us some light relief. Yet this is a subject where humour is now taboo, as James Corden discovered after making jokes about Weinstein at a Los Angeles charity gala in October

Censorship is a very serious step. While the theatre may feel that it is doing the right thing in cancelling the play, it has undermined its credibility as a space for artistic invention and exploration. Art plays an essential role in pushing the boundaries, saying the unsayable, outraging society and often makes us highly uncomfortable. Freedom of expression also includes the right to offend, shock and disturb, as the European Court of Human Rights has importantly recognised. The Royal Court Theatre itself played a lead role in ending theatre censorship in the UK in the 60s, as champion of John Osborne and Edward Bond’s works. It is essential that theatre continues to fulfil that role rather than succumbing to the prevailing moral climate.

We are in danger of moving into a new puritanical world, where it is considered dangerous to explore illegal or unacceptable behaviour even in a fictional setting and where we might be contaminated by watching a TV series which stars a man who has been accused of sexual harassment.  I’d very much like to live in a society where men (and women too) no longer get away with abusing their power, but I don’t want to live in a censorious, humourless world, where art is banned and theatres lose their nerve.

Jo Glanville is a visiting fellow at Giessen University and a longtime campaigner for freedom of expression. She was previously director of English PEN and editor of Index on Censorship Magazine