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
Sunday 02 October 2011
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
"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
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
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