Court hearings, walkouts, a riot – these were the plays that shocked

Edward Bond's notorious 'Saved', in which a baby is stoned to death, is about to get its first staging in London for 25 years. Here, Holly Williams recalls the most controversial dramas of the past five decades



Saved (1965)


Edward Bond's grittily naturalistic play about the intertwined lives and loves of a working-class family and a group of young thugs in south London was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain. The Royal Court theatre attempted to sneak through a legal loophole, staging it as a private club performance.

There was one scene that really upset the Chamberlain – as well as ensuring Saved remains notorious: a group of young men strike a baby and rub its face in excrement, before stoning it to death in its pram. The Telegraph reviewer reported "a cold disgust at being asked to sit through such a scene"; The Sunday Times suggested that in Saved "both life and art are irretrievably debased". Such was the uproar that the Royal Court was prosecuted for staging it. Although the theatre lost its case, the play had various defenders in court – including Sir Laurence Olivier – and the surrounding scandal helped lead to the abolition of stage censorship before the decade was out.

Bond has long refused to grant the rights to Saved, however, and the new production at the Lyric Hammersmith, which opens on Thursday, is the first on a London stage for 25 years. "My intuition is that [Bond] felt British theatre ignored and ostracised him," suggests the Lyric's artistic director, Sean Holmes, who after long discussions persuaded Bond to change his mind. Holmes – like Bond – considers Saved "deeply moral" exploring how violence is ingrained within our society, and predicts that audiences "will understand that scene in the context of the whole."

Sex: 3/5 Violence: 5/5 Scandal: 4/5

The Romans in Britain (1980)

In Howard Brenton's epic play a druid priest is anally raped by a Roman soldier. At its premiere at the National Theatre, in October 1980, audiences were reportedly somewhat shocked by this. Before long, news of Michael Bogdanov's production reached the ears of pro-censorship campaigner Mary Whitehouse.

Refusing to see the show, she sent along the Metropolitan Police's obscenity squad. While the Theatres Act of 1968 had done away with the Lord Chamberlain, it did still prohibit performances "likely to deprave or corrupt" – which Whitehouse was very concerned about, even suggesting that men watching Romans might get so "stimulated" they would attack "young boys". (Let's hope the policemen she sent weren't susceptible ..... )

The attorney general, however, found no grounds to prosecute. But Whitehouse was nothing if not persistent. On 19 December, Bogdanov was issued with a writ accusing him of having "procured an act of gross indecency" on the stage, contrary to the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. Bogdanov faced trial at the Old Bailey in March 1982.

Ultimately, the case collapsed, thanks to a remarkably silly sounding piece of evidence: a witness who claimed to have glimpsed "the tip of the penis" had actually had a seat so far back in the auditorium, that he hadn't realised he was, in fact, merely looking at a thumb.

While the legal furore may have obscured Romans as an artwork in its own right for many years, in 2006, Sam West staged the first major revival of the play at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

Sex: 4/5 Violence: 4/5 Scandal: 5/5

Blasted (1995)

"Until last night I thought I was immune from shock in any theatre. I'm not." So began one reviewer after watching Sarah Kane's debut, Blasted, Upstairs at the Royal Court in January 1995. Perhaps understandably: the second half of the play, set during a vicious civil war, sees a soldier raping a man before sucking his eyes out. The man later exhumes and eats a dead baby.

And how did the nation's critics respond to being shocked? They turned on the 23-year-old playwright, dealing out savage notices: a "disgusting feast of filth", spat Jack Tinker; "naïve tosh", dismissed Michael Billington; "entirely devoid of intellectual or artistic merit", howled Charles Spencer. While many later revised their opinions, the ensuing media storm ensured Kane's pivotal place in what was dubbed in-yer-face theatre, a wave of confrontational, explicit plays by young writers during the Nineties.

For her part, Kane, who cited Edward Bond as a major influence, claimed to be taken aback by the moral outrage, pointing out clear-sightedly that the media seemed "to be more upset by representations of violence than by violence itself". She committed suicide in 1999, two years before a revival at the Royal Court which saw Blasted favourably re-appraised. It's gone on to become a university course standard, and was also revived at the Lyric Hammersmith last year by Sean Holmes, who comments: "That play is shocking, but it's shocking on a deep, profound, human level."

Sex: 5/5 Violence: 5/5 Scandal: 4/5

Mercury Fur (2005)

First staged in 2005, Mercury Fur was considered so gratuitously offensive that Philip Ridley's own publisher, Faber, refused to print it.

The play presents a dystopian vision of a violent society in thrall to the consumption of hallucinogenic butterflies. A group of young people ensure their survival by throwing parties for the super-rich, where the "party piece" is a 10-year-old child on whom they can act out their most gruesome sexual and violent fantasises. Like a Greek tragedy, most of the horror is reported, not shown, and Ridley has insisted it's about exploring how far we'll go for the ones we love. But for many, Mercury Fur went too far.

Several critics opened their reviews with comparisons to past controversies. "Philip Ridley's new play undoubtedly shocks and disturbs. It may even cause the same kind of outrage as Bond's Saved and Kane's Blasted," began Michael Billington in The Guardian, while Charles Spencer in the Telegraph harrumphed that it was "the most violent and upsetting new play since Blasted...[Ridley] is...turned on by his own sick fantasies and is offering no more than cheap thrills." Ridley declared that critics were "blinder than a bagful of moles in a cellar".

The production – directed by John Tiffany at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and starring a young Ben Whishaw – garnered several positive reviews, the IoS among them. But it also divided audiences, some of whom voted with their feet: the production saw nightly walk-outs.

Sex: 3/5 Violence: 4/5 Scandal: 3/5

Behzti (2004)

Violent public demonstrations, not harsh words, fuelled the controversy around this 2004 play. Behzti – or Dishonour – showed rape and murder occurring in a Gurdwara, a Sikh temple. Its performance at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre inflamed the Sikh community, which considered it a slight on its faith and violently attacked the theatre. Thousands of pounds worth of damage was done in one December weekend, as over 400 Sikhs stormed the building before riot police arrived.

Despite initially putting out statements strongly resisting what it called "bowing to blatant censorship", Birmingham Rep ended up cancelling the remaining shows, on safety grounds. It was a decision that sparked further uproar, albeit mostly within the opinion columns of newspapers, as debate raged over freedom of speech, the cost of cultural sensitivity, and censorship through intimidation. The playwright, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti – herself a Sikh - had to go into hiding after receiving death threats.

Last year, a production of Behud, which means "beyond belief" and is Bhatti's response to the Behzti whirlwind – was safely staged, and those who attended were also invited to an otherwise entirely unpublicised rehearsed reading at the Soho Theatre in London of Behtzi, which passed without incident.

Sex: 4/5 Violence: 3/5 Scandal: 5/5

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam