Academics are generally a hopeless lot. But they can be vicious too. Take the case of Jen Harvie and her book, Staging the UK (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). This really is a very good book, a fine example of a decentred approach to the past twenty years or so of British theatre history, a serious, scholarly and succinct account of how performance has produced national and related identities in the United Kingdom.
The main criticism of the decentred approach would, of course, be that it doesn't really engage with the mainstream, that is, with the theatre that most people actually go and see. But that's by-the-by.
On a more personal note, however, I was both hurt and irritated that Harvie chose to use my book as an example of a xenophobic patriotism that elevates the literary over the theatrical, part of a tradition of anti-theatrical prejudice. Imagine, seeing yourself caricatured as some fascistic little-islander!
While I'm perfectly happy for people to criticise my work, I get really angry when they deliberately misrepresent my views. To prove that I am part of a historiography that sees "British theatre as fundamentally literary" (Harvie, 114), Harvie quotes from page xi of my book not once but twice. Fair enough, but while she does this, she also ignores another paragraph which occurs, not elsewhere in my book, but on the very same page (!). That paragraph reads:
"This book is based on the experience of going to the theatre. So, as well as assessing the literary value of plays as texts, it also stresses the contribution of directors, designers, actors and publicists in the creation of a play's meaning. It is not just a literary critique of a body of writing, but a series of frontline reports about what was happening on the public stage. It is mainly concerned with conveying what plays are like when you see them in performance, what it feels like to see a whole rash of new work, how the shock of the new is discussed and how meaning is created from the experience of theatregoing." (In-Yer-Face Theatre, xi)
Could someone, preferably Harvie herself, explain to me how that paragraph could be read as an endorsement of the view that British theatre is "fundamentally literary"? I explicitly state that my work, my historical method "is not just a literary critique of a body of writing, but a series of frontline reports about what was happening on the public stage. It is mainly concerned with conveying what plays are like when you see them in performance". How is a focus on performance, on "the experience of theatregoing" an endorsement of the view that "it is easier to write about static text" (Harvie, 115)?
Isn't it somewhat unethical to misrepresent another person's work like this? Doesn't it smack just a tiny bit of bad faith? I'm perfectly okay about anyone attacking my work (and boy do they do!), and expressing a different point of view, but wouldn't it be better to criticise me where I am wrong rather than use me as an example of something I never endorsed? In the future, I wish Harvie would kindly do me a favour - and desist from assimilating me into a historiographical tradition that I don't belong to. You see, it's a question of identity. And isn't that what Harvie's book is meant to be about? (2006)
Mrs Patrick Campbell, Victorian actress and friend of George Bernard Shaw, is reputed to have once said: 'I don't mind where people make love, so long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses.' Although depictions of sex on stage have frightened critics - if not horses - ever since, what is it about breaking taboos in public that makes people nervous - and does the concept of taboo make any sense in an age where you can watch sex on cable television and visit lapdancing clubs in any town?
London audiences will have a chance of confronting such questions later this month with the arrival of Spanish shock troupe La Fura dels Baus, with their version of the Marquis de Sade's taboo-smashing 1795 classic, Philosophy in the Bedroom. Called XXX, the show is no prissy frills-fest, but a full-on sensual assault. The updated plot is about the corruption of innocent Eugenie by three porn actors - and the apparently unwatchable climax sees her organising the gangbang of her own mother in revenge for her moral upbringing.
At other moments, sex rubs up against humour. A naked woman crouches, and lifts a pencil with her buttocks; huge video images of copulating couples alternate with pictures of a defecating anus and, according to media previews, a pair of ciggie-smoking vaginas chatting to each other.
Despite the jokes, the emotional punch is savage. As you'd expect: previous Fura shows have involved shaking up the audience by pelting them with chicken innards, splashing them with water or riding vehicles into them - these are not sedate theatre outings, but kick-arse gigs, with pounding music and intense shocks. This time, it's also interactive: you can text message the group during the show. And, one of its selling points, every night the fantasies of one audience member are realised on stage. Yes, of course it's a plant.
Director Alex Olle says: 'No one should come out of our show thinking: 'That was nice'.' No danger of that: XXX is about sensory overload. One minute you're smirking at a dildo-waving woman, the next you're cringing at the sight of genital mutilation. But what's the point of such attacking theatre? Dramatist Valentina Carrasco says, 'We are trying to make people face some aspects of their own being, especially sexuality. We bring things out into the open. Normally people watch pornography in the darkness, alone.'
She argues that most people have no problem with making public some intimate things, like monogamous love, 'but people don't want to show the stuff that comes from our deepest, hidden desires. When sex is related to love, then everything's okay, but when sex is just sex, there's a problem - it's an aspect of intimacy people don't want to expose.'
So it's the more animal urges - the desire to shag everything in sight - that are the raw material of taboo. That may be right: taboo, after all, is the way we police distinctions between what is human (good) and inhuman (bad). But what's so transgressive about De Sade?
'Philosophy in the Bedroom still touches taboos,' she says. 'You read De Sade and it's like 'Oh, my God'. He puts you in front of an extreme situation and makes it apply to you too.' The explicit sexual violence of Eugenie's attack on her mother feeds on basic psychological antagonisms. But if in XXX this scene feels horrendous, the original is even worse.
'In the book, the final scene is quite hard - the mother's pussy is sewn up after she's been raped by a syphilitic valet,' says Carrasco. 'But why are we so shocked? The mother is just a symbol of the hypocrisy of a moralistic society.' Then she adds: 'This also touches taboos about our parents' sexuality, which are very deep. Freud understood this urge to kill our parents. And by watching horrible things on stage you can have a catharsis of your own deepest and darkest desires.'
But what about the actors realising the fantasies of a member of the audience? Well, Carrasco is a bit cagey about that - it all depends on which country Fura is in. In Spain, one man begged to be flagellated; in Germany, some stripped off on stage. And in Britain? She feels the metropolitan Brits might be either too cool or too PC to participate. We will see.
The aim of XXX is 'not to break taboos for the sake of it, but to confront people with things that they may not like, but which are part of our hidden lives.' For example? 'The idea of violence in sex - there's a strong connection between pain and sex, which most people ignore or are afraid of. But it's part of human nature.'
Of course, Fura - whose orgiastic style hails from the Catalan tradition of firework processions and street theatre - did not invent the confrontational exploration of dark themes. Back in Mrs Campbell's day, theatre critics described the London premiere of Ibsen's Ghosts, with its allusions to syphilis, as 'an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged'. An extreme reaction which suggests that when social mores are rigid, it's easy to offend.
By the 1960s, as social change accelerated, the gap between what writers wanted to put on stage and the sensibilities of Middle England grew apace. There are many examples of sexual shock as bad boys full-frontally confronted all that could be affronted: Joe Orton's bisexual hi-jinks in Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964) left one critic feeling 'as if snakes had been writhing' around his feet while the portrayal of a lesbian relationship between Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale in Edward Bond's Early Morning (1968) amused as many as it offended.
Peter Brook's pivotal 1964 Theatre of Cruelty season - influenced by Artaud's ideas of shocking the senses into awareness - had its share of sexual sadism (a word derived from De Sade). Most memorably, Glenda Jackson (now a Labour MP), playing Christine Keeler, stripped off and whipped a client. In another scene, a woman lifted her skirts to reveal a nest of scorpions. Like XXX, the show was interactive: audiences were asked to suggest words to actors so they could improvise.
Theatre censorship, administered by the Lord Chamberlain, tried to protect the public from swearing, nudity and sex acts. The only way of avoiding this, as Brook did, was by declaring that the show was a private club performance. Consenting adults were grown-up enough to be faced with taboo-bending drama. When censorship was abolished in 1968, the expected flood of filth did not materialise. Instead, titillation - such as Ken Tynan's Oh! Calcutta! sex review - moved centre stage.
The last time that sex provoked a prosecution was in 1980, when Mary Whitehouse unsuccessfully tried to stop Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain, which had a homosexual rape scene. Could XXX fall foul of the law? The Clubs and Vice Unit of the Met says, 'We've been contacted about the show, our officers have watched videos of it and they can't see evidence of any criminal offence.' Still, the show will have an 18 certificate and a license from the local authority.
There will also be ample warning signs - a familiar sight during the past 10 years, in which British theatre has witnessed countless shockfests, from the rape and violence of Sarah Kane's taboo-busting Blasted in 1995 to Mark Ravenhill's explicit and disturbing Shopping and Fucking. Other examples of such in-yer-face theatre include Anthony Neilson's Penetrator, which featured pornography, and the sexual violence of Irvine Welsh's You'll Have Had Your Hole.
Taboo-breaking shows are sometimes so powerful, they blind us to other questions, such as: is the play any good? As veteran critic Milton Shulman once pointed out: 'Some critics reinforce their reputations as liberal observers by supporting any form of explicit sexual activity on the stage as a dramatic advance.'
'There is nothing gratuitous about the show,' says William Burdett-Coutts, Artistic Director of Riverside Studios, which is staging XXX. 'It's an honest piece of theatre and it leaves you thinking at the end. De Sade pushed sexual perversity beyond the limits and the show makes you ask what is reasonable in terms of your own fantasies.'
He adds: 'There were bits I couldn't watch - some of it is pretty frightening, but some of it is pretty funny too, and very witty.' So let's not get too po-faced about taboos - sex can be fun, and funny. 'In the end, one is both attracted to the images on stage and repulsed by them - both sides of the magnet.'
So is Fura smashing taboos? The daughter's sexual attack on the mother may be an exploration of murky family psychology, but surely it's also an example of De Sade's utter misogyny. No, it's more complicated than that, argues Valentina Carrasco: 'Yes, in Philosophy in the Bedroom, women's sexuality depends on men's, but the character of the corrupt Mme Saint-Ange is strong and interesting, so he's not just a macho misogynist.'
Burdett-Coutts says, 'Although sex is pervasive in our society, we find mild titillation acceptable, but anything that goes beyond the boundary of what is generally acceptable leaves everyone feeling slightly concerned. The Europeans on the whole are far more open about these things - we're quite restrained here. And it's quite good to question that restraint.'
Despite the penetration shots and general shocking and fussing, XXX may be less about taboo-breaking and more about the gulf between what Brits are prepared to accept and what the rest of Europe already shrugs off. As Channel 4's Eurotrash reminds us, what frightened the horses yesterday is now high camp. Even here, soft porn, as pioneered by Channel 5, has become mainstream. Maybe even the most avant-garde art is destined to end up as mere entertainment.
XXX opened at the Riverside Studios on 24 April
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Caught in the Act' in The Independent on Sunday on 13 April 2003
Recently, news from the sun-soaked Mediterranean island of Malta has not been good. In fact, clouds of ignorance suffuse the atmosphere. In early 2009, Unifaun Theatre Company’s production of Anthony Neilson’s play Stitching was banned (as in stopped by state power) for having dangerous references to sex in it, and because the state says it’s blasphemous. Yes, incredible, isn’t it?
Amazing as this is for a European country in the 21st century, what’s even more distressing is the morally blinkered, artistically ignorant and flabbergastingly stupid attitude of the Maltese Minister of Education and Culture, the repressive Dolores Cristina, and local bigwigs such as Father Peter Serracino Inglott, a particularly oily member of the benighted clergy. As ever, the shepherds of culture turn out to be its most fervent abusers.
In February 2009, I wrote a piece, for the Sunday Times of Malta, defending the theatre and attacking the censors. Guess what? It was censored! Nice one guys. That was a really good move, and sure to shut me up!
The fact that Malta still has theatrical censorship is not only politically reactionary and culturally backward, but has already attracted criticism from the Council of Europe. And surely the ban on the play is a breach of fundamental rights and freedoms as outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights. Isn’t it?
For what it’s worth, my spiked piece reads:
It’s not often that arts news from Malta causes a stir in Britain, but the banning of Stitching, a play by Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson, has been widely publicized. For me, a London-based theatre critic and academic whose specialisation is contemporary theatre, this ban feels like a throwback to the 1950s, when the censor, the Royal smut-hound, tried to inhibit all our best playwrights.
It is true that Stitching, which was first staged in Edinburgh in 2002, is controversial and difficult: it is a play about adult themes for adult audiences. In it, a young couple struggle to overcome the stresses and strains of being in a sexual relationship. This involves questions of fidelity, past violence and the decision to have a child.
But as well as being a beautifully written play, with direct and expressive dialogues, Stitching is a thrilling experiment in theatre form. The scenes often flash forwards and backwards, and some of them are enactments of the couple’s sexual fantasies. Most revealing of all, the dialogues are brilliantly realized psychological double-binds, intricately written and excruciatingly familiar.
Like the other British playwrights that came to prominence in the 1990s, and whose work I describe in my bestselling book, In-Yer-Face Theatre (Faber, 2001), Neilson is a writer who has the courage to explore the dark side of humanity, and the imagination to create vivid stage pictures of joy as well as distress. Without doubt, Stitching is one of the best British plays of the past decade.
Having seen the play, which surely gives me an advantage over the Education and Culture Minister Dolores Cristina, I can confirm that it is a provocative and thought-provoking account of a real relationship, looking at what is best as well as worst in human beings. Her fixation on one or two lines in 50-page script is both highly selective and depressingly philistine. So the Culture Minister lacks culture, and who will educate the Education Minister?
Neilson gives his characters strong lines because they are a couple who are uninhibited about discussing how and why their love affair went wrong. Both are searching for an emotional truth that constantly eludes them; both are trying to rediscover their early sensations of love for one another. Both are frank because their feelings are still raw. The alternative is mute resentment – would that really be preferable?
True, this play is occasionally shocking but it never shocks for no reason. Every line is justified by the context of the couple’s conflicts, every confrontation pushes the story onwards. There is tenderness as well as brutality here: it is genuinely artful as well as being persuasive.
I have to say that I’m puzzled by Fr Peter Serracino Inglott’s comments. Since he hasn’t seen the play, surely he is no position to judge whether it “it relies almost exclusively on verbal exchange for its effect”. I have seen it and can assure him that it also requires the “theatrically innovatory language” which he saw as a “redeeming feature” of Blasted. In the original production, to cite just one instance, scene six was performed as a wordless grapple to the music of Iggy Pop.
Fr Peter seems unwilling to imagine how the shock delivered by a stage play might awaken a moral response, or, more profoundly, the sense of fear and pity typically engendered by tragedy. Being slippery, he quotes Aristotle, but misrepresents his gist. Isn’t it tragedy’s ability to shake our emotions precisely what Aristotle was describing? To say that the Greek philosopher was talking essentially about “enjoyment” is like saying that the Sermon on the Mount is light entertainment. (I assume I don’t have to explain the latter reference to this dolt.)
Finally, it is highly ironic that Fr Peter claims that breaking taboos is “a futile smashing-down of open doors” when the door that would enable the inhabitants of Malta to actually see the play and make up their own minds has been so effectively slammed shut by their own Culture Minister.
Both these local bigwigs are making a big mistake. The most effective way to reach a just conclusion about a play is to show it to an audience. If Cristina or Fr Peter had real faith in their ideas, they would not be afraid to allow this; since they clearly wish to ban the play, they have no faith in their own opinions. If so, why should anyone else believe them? Come on guys, trust the people.
PS: Having been refused by the Sunday Times of Malta, this article was finally published in Malta Today as ‘Trust the people, not the censors’, on 5 April 2009
Re Moira Buffini's Dinner at the National Theatre's Loft (November 2002). I sent a letter to the TLS about its review of the play. Sadly, they didn't print it. But here it is anyway: 'In her review of Moira Buffini's Dinner (TLS, November 29), Katherine Duncan-Jones complains that "it simply isn't believable that a young man earning a living as a van driver would set out without a mobile". Belief is a subjective state, but I think I can help her: the truth is that, of course, the character set out with a mobile phone, but then its battery ran out. More annoyingly, since Duncan-Jones herself calls the play's aesthetic Magic Realist, surely it makes no sense to judge it by using such literal and naturalistic criteria.'
For a brief history of the many different productions of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, plus the full text of the New York version, see Irvine Welsh (ed) 4 Play, published by Vintage in 2001 (for more on Trainspotting, see In-Yer-Face Theatre, chapter 2).