Earlier this month (August), the National Youth Theatre made the decision to cancel their production of Omar El-Khairy’s new play, Homegrown. El-Khairy and, director, Nadia Fall, said that voices had been “silenced”, in regards to the cancellation of the play inspired by three young girls from Bethnal Green travelling to Syria to join Islamic State.
Whilst some will argue that in light of the rise of Islamic extremism, it was appropriate to cancel the play in light of any potential fallout, the move by the NYT has been widely condemned by arts figures including Donmar Warehouse Artistic Director, Josie Rourke, and David Lan, who is at the helm of the Young Vic who described the censorship as “a troubling moment for British theatre and freedom of expression".
It is undeniably that the censorship of arts restricts intelligent debate, reduces the quality of work created and binds the artists to a production which often does not fit their vision; however, this has not stopped the squeeze on challenging and thought provoking work since it was considered “thoroughly dangerous” for Shakespeare to prevent tyrannical Richard III in anything but a negative light.
The bard himself often pandered to his patrons, with some historians believing that the inclusion of genealogical information linking King James I – Shakespeare’s patron at the time – to have descended from the line of Banquo, to fuel the King’s interest in the topic.
In stark contrast, Mike Barlett’s 2014 play, King Charles III, depicted the death of Elizabeth II, before seeing Charles, the new king, refuse to grant royal assent, the resulting dissolution of parliament, widespread rioting and the usurping of his throne by his son, Prince William. Barlett’s open critique did prompt, according to Guardian critic Michael Billington, ““titillating shock”, it’s Olivier Award for Best New Play and transfers to the West End and Broadway demonstrate the success that a controversial play can offer.
Unfortunately, some plays do not even get the opportunity to prove themselves. In 2004, Gupreet Kaur Bhatti published her play Bhetzi, performed in Birmingham. The play sparked controversy, due to a scene set in a Sikh temple which conveyed rape, physical abuse, homosexuality and murder. Violent protests by some members of the Sikh community at the theatre led to the production being cancelled.
The actions of the protestors were condemned by numerous industry figures, including Willy Russell, Richard Eyre and Shelia Hancock, who in a joint letter, said “we all have the right to protest peacefully if a work of art offends us. We do not have the right to use violence and intimidation to prevent that work of art from being seen by others.”
This was replicated in Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B. The performance featured black actors chained as if in the human zoos which were popular during the 19th and early 20th Centuries in the US and Western Europe. Whilst running in Edinburgh – a festival which is widely known for the variety and unusual, sometimes shocking, nature of its theatre – the performance was dubbed a “masterstroke”; however, upon transferring to the Barbican in September 2014 faced an enormous backlash. A petition calling for the “racist” production to be cancelled received over 20,000 signatures, before protests on the opening night led to the Barbican cancelling the run of Exhibit B at their venue due to safety concerns.
With the success of King Charles III and the similarly controversial, yet popular, The Book of Mormon flying the flag for risqué and brash theatre, we must wonder how Exhibit B, Bhetzi and Homeland would have fared. The really tragic thing is that we will never know.