Theatre Censorship – Rita Sue and Bob Too at the Royal Court, or not

Lord Cobbold

Lord Cobbold, Lord Chamberlain 1963 – 1971

Theatre Censorship is one of my favourite topics. Get me drunk and I’ll either tell you about fourteen ways of making a new word in the English language without borrowing from foreign languages (no, honestly), or I’ll blather on about why Frank Marcus’ The Killing of Sister George wasn’t banned but Edward Bond’s Saved was. Official censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office ceased in 1968 – fifty years ago next year, more of which later – but there’s no more effective form of censorship than commercial censorship. You might have written The Best Play Ever but if no producer or theatre will touch it, it will never see the light of day.

Rita Sue and Bob TooSomething of a mini-censorship furore has raised its ugly head recently over the production of Rita Sue and Bob Too which was due to play at the Royal Court in January. A few days ago it was announced that they were dropping the production, as it was co-directed by the once lauded, now disgraced Max Stafford-Clark. Mr Stafford-Clark has been accused of many instances of improper behaviour with cast members over the years; and as Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre from 1979 to 1993, it’s not hard to forge a link between him and his behaviour and the theatre itself.

Vicky Featherstone

Vicky Featherstone, Artistic Director, Royal Court Theatre

No wonder emotions ran a little high; particularly as Rita Sue and Bob Too is a challenging play that depicts – there’s no two ways of saying this – a man regularly having sex with two fifteen-year-old girls. In 1982 when the play first appeared, that was illegal but many a blind eye was turned. Today, in our post-Operation Yewtree world, this is completely unacceptable; and in the Royal Court’s post-Stafford-Clark climate, where Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone has also been part of a major campaign against sexual harassment in the industry in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein shenanigans, she obviously felt that the play and the theatre did not sit well side by side. But only a few days later, this decision was reversed.

Royal CourtIMHO, society still hasn’t quite worked out what to do about paedophiles, so I think a good production of this play is a valuable tool in the discussion databank. There are many reasons why I applaud Vicky Featherstone’s decision to backtrack on dropping the play and reinstating it in the schedule. Censorship is never the answer. Just because you burn the books it doesn’t make the content go away. This is, indeed, a very good production, which I saw in Northampton in November. Why is it perfectly acceptable for the play to tour many provincial theatres around the UK, but for it suddenly to be too distasteful for the capital? Indeed, the Royal Court’s history of presenting avant garde theatre over the decades – its raison d’etre in many aspects – by rights ought to mean that there is nowhere more appropriate for the play to be staged. I bumped into the Chief Executive of the Royal and Derngate in Northampton shortly after we’d seen Rita Sue and Bob Too at his theatre and remarked on what a challenging play it is, in that we’re being asked to sympathise with a paedophile. His simple response was one of yes, it really makes you think and doesn’t theatre throw up some surprises sometimes. Which I think is absolutely the most rational reaction.

Andrea Dunbar

Andrea Dunbar

Added to which, the play’s writer, Andrea Dunbar, is no longer alive to defend her own work or to write more plays. Censorship of Rita Sue and Bob Too is effectively stifling what remains of her voice; a voice that came from the heart and described day-to-day life in her home town of Bradford in those depressing but unforgettable early Thatcher days. It would be a strange mixture of cowardly and cruel to extinguish her voice even further.

If Andrea Dunbar had written this play in the mid-1960s I am sure the Lord Chamberlain would have banned it outright, because of its display of promiscuous and underage sex. I could even imagine a case of obscenity being brought against it. The Theatres Act defines an obscene play as one likely to deprave and corrupt those likely to see it. Well, when I saw Rita Sue and Bob Too, the man in front of me was definitely getting carried away with the sexual frissons emanating from the stage, with shouts like “Go on, my son” and “I wish I had his job”. Had the play depraved and corrupted that man? That would be for a court to decide, but, personally, I think he was already three-quarters of the way there. Those days of stage censorship are long gone, let’s not resurrect them now.

Whilst I have your attention, gentle reader, next year I shall be launching a brand new, additional, site where I hope to take you through the fiftieth anniversary of the withdrawal of stage censorship, looking at many examples of banned or heavily edited plays, the writers’ reactions, the effects on the plays themselves, the opinions of the public and the reviewers, the history of stage censorship and the progress towards its abolition. Please feel free to bookmark now – the About page is already written – and we will get going properly in January!

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