The censor returns

New Lord Chamberlains are policing the stage with puritan zeal


This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Theatre’s specialist subject is human relationships. This, together with an openness to new ideas and socially liberal values, has for centuries placed theatre at odds with those who saw danger in such expressions. Plays were censored by the Master of the Revels during the reign of Elizabeth I and London’s stage silenced by parliament’s order from 1642 to 1660. Following the 1737 Licensing Act, the task of playhouse censor rested with the Lord Chamberlain, assisted by his Examiner of Plays. 

From attempting to police political or religious unorthodoxy, theatre censorship morphed into taking upon itself responsibility for a national moral code: no sex please, we are British. The theatre rose to the challenge as practitioners from George Bernard Shaw to music hall artistes such as Marie Lloyd endeavoured to push the boundaries. 

Appearing before the Vigilance Committee (which censored music halls) in 1896, Lloyd toned down her gestures while performing her songs to the extent that the committee agreed the songs were acceptable. She then performed a genuinely innocent song of the time, “Come into the Garden, Maud” with such vim and innuendo that it was rendered totally obscene.

In the mid-sixties, Alan Ayckbourn wrote Relatively Speaking. The play opens with the sounds of Ginny off stage in the shower and Greg waking up. He is about to leap out of bed but, realising he is naked, he comedically wraps the bed sheet around himself. The young, unmarried couple have clearly spent the night together in her flat. 

If you are a theatregoer then what you want is no longer the main concern

To the censor, this was unacceptable, but a compromise was reached: if the scene were set in the afternoon, it could go ahead as written (presumably because the Lord Chamberlain thought a naked nap was a more plausible afternoon pastime than daylight sex). Rendering itself ridiculous, the Lord Chamberlain’s remit was abolished in 1968. Audiences were at last free to see the gamut of human experience and relationships on stage. 

Theatre has moved on from freedoms it explored through the licence of the late sixties and seventies. The most obvious difference is the prevalence of plays showcasing, exemplifying, and celebrating “diversity”. 

This could be the realisation of long-fought campaigns to ensure that one voice doesn’t rule all the stories so we could all share our specific, individual experience of the world. But diversity’s meaning has changed in the intervening half-century. It now refers primarily to the race and, to a lesser extent, the sexual preference or gender identity of the practitioners. “Good,” you may think. But if you are a theatregoer then what you want is no longer the main concern. A stronger motivation is the theatre community’s own fear of being accused of racism. 

Pre-pandemic, I was in a large West End show with a cast of around 50. The cast were lovely and in every way diverse. One day the company manager squeezed down a crowded backstage corridor and said, “excuse me, Algernon,” to a tall black actor, as he passed. This actor’s name was Jack. Algernon was another black actor of a similar height in the company. You can imagine the fallout. 

The manager is no longer with the company, and the Zoom meetings we had during the pandemic with the entire company and the top producers, were focused not on how we were coping financially with our industry’s shutdown or when we might have expected to be able to return to work but on tackling “racism in the building”. 

We are in an Orwellian nightmare of doublethink and doublespeak

To add context, I shared a dressing room with two twenty-something white actors and there were two middle-aged white bald men in the dressing room next to me whose names were constantly being muddled up … so much so that it became a joke in the company, but — as we were told in our Zoom meeting — “it’s impossible to be racist to white people”. By contrast, making honest mistakes when stressed (company managers work very hard) and only seeing someone from behind is incontrovertibly racist. 

The returning company were forced to attend anti-racism and micro-aggression training. These took the form of lectures from unemployed actors who have found a lucrative line in a one-person show with a captive audience. They lecture the company on how they have original sin in the form of prejudices and racism that they don’t even know about, which can only be revealed to them through the eyes of the “victim”, who is to be always believed. 

The effect proved predictable. People who had been friends found it difficult to communicate with each other for fear of causing offence. After all, if racism is everywhere, not seeing the problem may be evidence of being racist without knowing it. I chose not to return to the show. 

We are in an Orwellian nightmare of doublethink and doublespeak. Our union, Equity, sees no contradiction in sending an email to all members inviting us to stand for a position on the “racial equalities committee” as long as we “identify as non-white”.

This paranoia has sent theatre’s (mostly still white) artistic directorships into panicked scrambles to hire and cast more “diverse” writers and actors. There are genuine, good, reasons to do so, but mainly, I suspect, the motive is a self-defence shield for the white artistic directors in this unforgiving brave new world. They remind me of a group of people about to be chased by a pack of wolves all putting on their best running trainers, not so much to outrun the wolves as each other in the hope that the pack’s appetite is satiated before it reaches them. 

The real question connected with wanting “more” ethnic minority participation is how many more? We never get to that answer. At the 2011 census, 86 per cent of the population of England and Wales was ethnically White. But proportionality to a national norm is not the battle-cry. 

One demand follows the lead that CBS in America has taken in its reality shows of mandating 50 per cent BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of colour) casting. Given London’s diverse demography, this pledge has been taken up by some midscale off-West End venues in the north and west of the capital. 

Of course, “diverse” in practice, though not in principle, predominantly means black actors (the far lower incidence of Asian actors is not yet quite as politicised). Nobody in the theatre dare say it openly for fear of never working in the profession again, but given that good actors are rare, will quality will be affected by restricting half the acting roles on the London stage to those who qualify only because they represent the black ethnicity of 13 per cent of the city’s population?

Orlando (Bettrys Jones) falls in love with Rosalind (Jack Laskey) in the Globe’s As You Like It

In any case, representing on stage the exact proportion of a locality’s ethnic make-up is problematic. How does it help black actors in Devon? We should be telling good stories that engage audiences, not lecturing them on what they should be thinking, and despising them for not living up to the surreal non-reality to which theatre now expects the world to conform. 

“Colour-blind casting” has become more commonplace. Michelle Terry, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank said of her 2017-18 season, “it will be gender blind, race blind, disability blind”. In the 2019 RSC production of The Comedy Of Errors, the Antipholus twins who are mistaken for each other throughout the play, were cast with two people of a different race.

There is an old rule in theatre that you don’t mention a gun in act 1 unless you fire it in act 3. Good storytelling requires structures of this kind. Showing the audiences that parents of one race have biological children of a different race requires acceptance that a child was born white to two black parents. Instead, the audience sits there wondering when the story about adoption is going to be revealed in the play. Confusingly it does not. Nevertheless, theatre-goers are well advised not to mention the oddness of it all.

A friend of mine was cast as Orlando in As You Like It at the Globe. The character of Orlando is the male love interest of the female lead, Rosalind, and fights the best wrestler in the land to make a name for himself. My friend is a brilliant actor. She is also 4’ 10” with a very slight frame. The director failed to conjure up a way to convince the audience that this Orlando could beat the massive Charles and so we were left with the impression that Charles let her win. That is not in the story.

To add to the complexity, this “gender blind” production featured male and female actors indiscriminately playing male or female characters in a play in which the central characters dress up in a different gender for much of the story. We were asked, without explanation, to recognise some gender-swapping and ignore others. The result? Confusion. Welcome back to post-pandemic theatre.

Ticking boxes creates bad theatre

To compound the problem, we have the Arts Council’s funding criteria. I have produced and directed plays in London, on national tours, and in New York. Starting out I applied for Arts Council funding many times, always with a sinking heart when I had to tick the box saying I was a white, straight, male. Everyone in theatre knows that this is the reason you don’t get funding. The Council has a three-word euphemism for it in the “detailed feedback” it provides to help you reapply: “Other applications preferred.” 

Ticking boxes creates bad theatre. One of the most diverse audiences I have ever seen in terms of age, background, and race is for the West End’s second longest running play, “The Woman In Black.” It has a cast of two white men. 

Diversity of audience is related to the quality of production, not the number of people with a certain skin tone involved in the production. The audience for “Hamilton” is still predominantly white, despite its predominantly black cast. Its success is down to its quality.

An ex-director friend who now works for the Arts Council said to me over a coffee, “in order to have equality of opportunity in theatre, we need equity. In order to have equity we need to take talent off the table.” How equality of outcome leads to equality of opportunity is not explained, but it neatly articulates the Arts Council’s priorities — the ideology is more important than the quality. It is tempting to wonder whether theatre is really the Arts Council’s thing.

The candle of good theatre still precariously flickers in the provinces

Deemed irrelevant is diversity of thought. Theatre’s self-censorship and contempt for its audience is encapsulated by the reality that even although 17.4 million people voted for Brexit, no significant theatrical production will portray their decision as more than a Little Englander’s delusion, tinged by racism. A play that depicts their motives with nuance and comprehension, let alone sympathy, would struggle to take flight, at least in the West End. How could it, when writing, appearing in or promoting it would be career suicide? 

But fear and dogma do not have complete dominion. British theatre exists beyond London. Big producers believe they are too big to fail and can happily despise their audiences, while small producers are dependent on Arts Council funding. This leaves out an “in between” stratum of commercially-minded productions in the provinces who are forced to put their audiences first, or go under. That’s where the candle of good theatre still precariously flickers. 

It clings on within a profession that is guided to think of itself more as a priesthood tasked with sermonising to parishioners about the error of their ways. A Canadian actor friend once told me, without irony, she believed that theatre people’s votes should count twice because we understand empathy more than “normal people”. 

But we theatre people, apparently, cannot handle the freedom an earlier generation fought long to gain. We enact our moral and literal censorship with a zeal that would put any long-dead Lord Chamberlain to shame. So reversed have the roles become that, as a determined advocate for freedom of speech who has devoted his life to theatre, I find that since theatre has become its own censor, funded by an Arts Council rewarding puritanical self-righteousness, I almost yearn for the Lord Chamberlain’s return.

Why such perversity? Because the return of the state censor’s dead hand might infuriate and unify us to reclaim our artistic freedom, rediscover our love for diversity of thought and find our way back to what our main focus should be — our audience. I live in hope.

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