Stephen Fry has been accused of "promoting paedophilia" by giving his blessing to an Edinburgh Festival revival of his award-winning play about an affair between a teacher and an under-age schoolboy.
When a 23-year-old Fry first unleashed his public school satire Latin! on the Fringe in 1980, it earned him a best newcomer's prize and kick-started his long-standing collaboration with comic partner Hugh Laurie.
Now a row has broken out over plans by an acclaimed young company to revive the play, which tells of the homosexual relationship between a Latin master and his 13-year-old pupil. The play opens as part of the Fringe on Friday.
The protests have been led by James Gilchrist, a local Conservative councillor who branded the play "smut" and dismissed Fry's contribution to the theatre as something that "could be written on the back of a postage stamp".
Activated Image, the company behind the revival, is so amused by the furore that it has posted Mr Gilchrist's criticisms on its website. It maintains that the play, a black comedy that veers between light farce and outright anarchy, is intended to cast a thoughtful eye over the inherent absurdity, and dangers, of public school life.
"What Stephen Fry pulls off so brilliantly is to cover this topic in a way which is not in any way shocking," said artistic director Adam Barnard. "People have said things like, 'You shouldn't have paedophilia on stage because it encourages people to do that.' Well, people don't say, 'You mustn't have Hamlet on stage because it encourages people to commit murder.'"
Referring to the sympathetic portrayal of the central character, Dominic Clarke, whose extra-curricular activities with young Rupert Cartwright lead to his being blackmailed by a vicious older master, he said: "I think the point he is making is that it's absolutely possible for someone to be a reasonable human being, but at the same time a person who shouldn't be let loose on the population of a school."
He added that, in evoking the "literary motif" of the idealised beautiful boy, Fry had tapped into a tradition stretching back through authors like Oscar Wilde and Thomas Mann to the ancient Greeks.
Mr Gilchrist, who has reluctantly accepted an invitation to watch the play and take part in a post-show panel discussion, maintains that he is unimpressed by the company's arguments.
"I find it extraordinary that a subject as sensitive as paedophilia can be seen as art or entertainment," he said. "It doesn't sound like it is giving people a warning about its subject – it seems to be promoting it."
Fry is hoping to attend one of its new performances at Edinburgh's Gilded Balloon theatre. Last night, he was unavailable for comment.
Elsewhere on this year's Fringe, sex will co-exist with sermons as the traditional outbreak of outrageous one-man shows and gratuitous displays of nudity is matched by a number of productions focusing on religion.
As an antidote to comedian Richard Herring's Talking Cock, billed as a riposte to Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues, there will be two shows based on St John's Gospel, and the Scottish Bible Society is funding two plays, including Tetragrammaton, a breakneck precis of the Old and New Testaments.
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