Playing politics: should theatre be a safe space?

Saturday 28 October, 10:0011:30, Frobisher 4-6Culture Wars

In association with:

When vice-president elect Mike Pence was booed at a performance of Hamilton last year, a protective Donald Trump tweeted ‘The Theater must always be a safe and special place’. Theatre practitioners internationally responded that on the contrary, their art form has a responsibility to make people uncomfortable, especially powerful people. From Tartuffe to Angels in America, the best theatre has always challenged social norms and unsettled comfortable assumptions in order to make audiences think.

But doth the lady protest too much? Beyond the rhetoric, some fear there’s an increasingly prescriptive agenda concerning what is and is not acceptable in modern theatre. And if theatre is a becoming a ‘safe space’, it is not because of an executive tweet from President Trump, but rather the culture of offence-taking spreading from university campuses. Even the Royal Court, an institution set up to promote new, challenging and experimental writing, now feels the need to protect audiences by introducing ‘trigger warnings’. One student theatre director wrote he had to leave a performance of Peter Grimes ‘as a result of unexpectedly discomforting scenes of sexual grooming and assault between Peter and a younger man’, going on to demand that, ‘ticket holders are made aware of unsettling scenes before being seated’.

While it’s rarely the state that interferes in theatre’s output today, some worry artistic autonomy is under strain from new rules and an emerging cultural activism with a narrowly-defined set of cultural, political and moral norms. Glenda Jackson and Maxine Peake playing Lear and Hamlet, like transgender casting in The Maids, has been greeted as innovative and daring. Yet conversely, Trevor Nunn’s decision to cast only white performers in a production of War of the Roses has drawn criticism from diversity campaigners, angry at what they describe as a ‘whitewashing’ of history. Howard Barker’s In The Depths of Dead Love, a fable set in a fantastical version of medieval China, was attacked for ‘yellowface’ (when actors of non-East-Asian heritage play an East Asian role) after London fringe theatre Print Room used an all-white cast. Protesters held signs reading, ‘This production was made by racists’ and shouted, ‘shame on you’ at audience members.

So is theatre now a safe space only for self-consciously transgressive and edgy productions, while those deemed offensive to the progressive zeitgeist can expect angry tweets and worse from the very people who mocked Donald Trump’s intervention?

Theatre has always reflected real world politics, and historically was often censored when it offended the sensibilities of the powerful. But is it now more fashionable trends like identity politics, diversity agendas and safe spaces that threaten artistic freedom? Should there be a distinction between criticism of artistic decisions, which are crucial to any art form, and political ‘call out’ critiques, which limit the autonomy of drama practitioners? Or should those involved accept that theatre must respond with sensitivity to those who speak for the vulnerable and marginalised, even as it claims to discomfit the powerful?