Quoted in the New York Times discussing the cancellation of Rita, Sue and Bob Too

The Royal Court Theatre has cancelled a revival of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Andrea Dunbar’s 1982 play about grooming and sexual exploitation. The cancellation came after it was revealed in October that Max Stafford-Clark, who directed the original production and co-directed the revival, had been forced to resign as creative director of Out of Joint due to multiple allegations of ‘inappropriate behaviour.’

The venue had recently staged No Grey Area, an event in which 150 stories of sexual abuse and exploitation were shared over the course of an afternoon. The Royal Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone has called for the British theatre community to reckon with the abuses of power, just as Hollywood is doing now that the extent of Harvey Weinstein’s monstrous behaviour has been revealed. In this context, says the theatre, staging Rita, Sue and Bob Too is “highly conflictual.”

I spoke to New York Times correspondent Anna Codrea-Rado about the cancellation and am quoted in her report:The move has prompted a debate over the role of the theatre in such matters.

“This is a complex issue that raises the question of whether the behaviour of an artist affects how their work is understood,” said Robert Sharp of the nonprofit writers association English PEN. “It is a shame that director Kate Wasserberg and the cast have been denied the chance to work at one of the U.K.’s most influential theatres.”

Later in the piece:

Mr. Sharp of English PEN added: “Andrea Dunbar’s play remains highly relevant, and British theatre companies should be addressing the issues of grooming, exploitation and consent that the play explores.”

I have more to add.

In particular, we should note that decision to abandon this production appears to have been taken unilaterally by the theatre itself, and not in response to external pressure. Freedom of expression includes the right to refrain from staging something that conflicts with your beliefs. After No Grey Area and a rethink over how sexual exploitation is dealt with in our culture, that right is engaged for the Royal Court and the theatre appears to be exercising it.

The discussion is therefore not simply about a denial of freedom of expression rights, but about competing freedom of expression rights.

With this in mind, I would still argue for allowing the play to continue. I tend to think that a producer, publisher or curator’s ‘right to refrain’ is diminished once they formally commission and publicise piece of art (even more so when the play has already been deployed around the country). And an important tenet of free speech is trusting the audience make up its own mind.

But these are inexact rules-of-thumb and every case will be different. My point is simply that, while I might disagree with the Royal Court’s decision, there is more nuance than knee-jerk in its position. Those who say that Vicky Featherstone and the Royal Court have carelessly sacrificed freedom of expression on the altar of political correctness, have not, in my opinion, been paying attention to the wider discussion. I think there are other, honest concerns in the mix.

Another issue: All the mainstream media criticism of the Royal Court’s decision that I have read has been written by men, explaining to the female-led Royal Court how they have misinterpreted the meaning of the play! There is something unedifying about this.

These critics ground their complaints on their own particular interpretation of the play—-a reading that should itself be open to scrutiny. In the same New York Times article, my friend Manick Govinda says that to view the two main characters in Rita, Sue and Bob Too as victims “does a great disservice to the agency of the principle characters and to the wit, warmth and charm of this classic ’80s drama.” Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill says that it is “simply wrong” to say the play is about grooming or sexual abuse and that the cancellation is a “disgrace”.

These assertions about the nature of Rita, Sue and Bob Too are based on how it was received by the 1980s audiences. They seem to deny the possibility that a new generation may see it in a different light. Perhaps, actually, it is a creepy play, directed by a creepy man, that excuses the creepy grooming of vulnerable young women. And perhaps Andrea Dunbar was an apologist for that. This point of view is certainly arguable.

If we are genuine in our desire to make our culture better and less creepy for half the population, then we should at least listen to those who are making that argument. In fact, I’d say that the spirit of free speech demands that we do so.

Update

It seems the Royal Court has reversed its decision! Vicky Featherstone said:

I have therefore been rocked to the core by accusations of censorship and the banning of a working-class female voice. For that reason, I have invited the current Out of Joint production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too back to the Royal Court for its run. As a result of this helpful public debate we are now confident that the context with which Andrea Dunbar’s play will be viewed will be an invitation for new conversations.

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