Saturday, 16 December 2017


I think it was probably a pretty difficult decision for the Royal Court to pull its January run of the revival of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too. 

I imagine it was also a very difficult decision to un-cancel it in light of widespread accusations that they were censoring the playwright, an iconic working class writer who burned bright and died young etc. 

This is obviously all pure conjecture, but I would further guess that the fact Court AD Vicky Featherstone ultimately changed her mind is reflective of the fact she had struggled with the decision in the first place. I certainly don’t get the impression that the reinstatement has been made through gritted teeth, or that the backlash has been comparable to that against, say, the Tricycle’s decision to back out of the Jewish Film Festival.

So I’m a bit depressed by the polarised tone of many of the reactions to it, that a decision probably agonised over has been turned into some sort of Biblically stark scenario.

My hilariously convoluted personal view is that there were sound reasons for cancelling it - which seem to be the ones most people on side seem to be assuming the Court cancelled it for - but that the Court’s actual stated reasons were pretty questionable. 

The press release announcing the cancellation said very little about Max Stafford-Clark, but instead suggested that the themes of the play made it inappropriate to stage in the light of the Court’s admirable recent work in addressing abuse in the industry. 

A lot of ‘theatre people’ are aware that the play has a history bound up with the recently-outed-as-an-abuser etc Stafford-Clark, that he was originally scheduled to direct this revival, and that the Royal Court is a new writing theatre that hardly ever plays host to revivals and that Stafford-Clark - who directed Rita, Sue and Bob Too’s premiere at the Court in 1982 - was essentially the reason the revival was calling in. I think those are all pretty sound reasons to reject the production, a touring show from Out of Joint, the company MSC recently left in disgrace. 

However, none of them were publicly stated as reasons for its cancellation and I’m not sure much of this is widely known outside a fairly narrow circle of industry figures/theatre buffs. So I’m not very surprised that a large number of people not in the industry have taken the Court’s statement – which I think was clumsy at best – at face value, believing that the principle reason for taking Rita, Sue and Bob Too off is that the themes in it are not appropriate for staging (at this time, sure, but when would they ever be?) And it’s not much of a leap to then start fretting about the irony of ‘censoring’ the blameless Dunbar – one of the most iconic working class playwrights of the '80s – in the name of young women who’d been abused.

Were the Court's reasons for taking it off actually the ones stated? If I had to guess I'd say no. I imagine it’s legally difficult to say much more about Stafford-Clark without opening yourself to possible legal action, given he’s not been charged with anything and the public accusations against him are thus far both recent and limited. In fact I don't think I’ve seen one person defending the decision on the grounds of the wording of the decision, but on a subtext that they assume to be there. But it may not be, and it’s certainly not going to be apparent to people like, say, Hadley Freeman or Gloria de Piero who have expressed their upset at the ban. It has been suggested to me that I’m being pedantic over the wording of a press release, or that the real reasons go without saying. I really don’t think so - your public statement is your public statement. Words matter. You're communicating to the world, not a clique. 

Clearly there are some absolute free speech bore dickheads who’ve waded in unhelpfully, without meaning well. And I feel uncomfortable about older male figures of the MSC vintage giving anyone any lectures about anything. But a lot of the people who work in theatre or write about theatre who wanted the play reinstated had earnest and heartfelt reasons for it and the way I’ve seen some of them spoken about on Twitter is almost is if they’re traitors to some sort of grand cause that the cancellation of Rita, Sue and Bob Too was furthering. As it is, I don’t even think there had been any sort of meaningful motion to ban the play prior to the Court doing so itself. (Which is not to say that it hadn’t been viewed as problematic, but perhaps it had been given a pass specifically because of the good work the Court has been doing lately).

Anyway - the Court has stated there should be no grey areas in terms of professional and personal relationships. But other grey areas will always exist. Rita, Sue and Bob Too exists in a grey area because there are legitimate reasons for taking it off and legitimate reasons for keeping it on. In the end I get the feeling that Featherstone’s decision was swayed by the fact that the Court is a writer’s theatre first, and perhaps the indignation for Dunbar's sake offered her a default route to take that aligned with her theatre's mission. All I can really say is that I don’t think any of this is a sign of weak leadership, just hard decisions. Agonising over something difficult is perfectly normal. Suggesting Vicky Featherstone has been bullied into providing a platform for Max Stafford-Clark is reductive at best, cobblers at worse. 

The fact that the play can only be either off or in doesn’t mean either state is perfect.

I imagine there’s is a certain awareness that the route that would have caused the least fuss would have been not doing anything and hoping the run went off with minimal comment.

I imagine there will be a lot of people very relieved when the run is over.

Personally, I think the best outcome now is that the discourse around it can go some way to pry the play from the shadows of its past. People would like Dunbar's reputation to survive her director's. So I guess if the show is now happening, let's go into it with that frame of mind.


Adelaide Dupont said...

Hey Andrzej:

what a wonderful play Rita Sue and Bob too is. And a lot of people loved it as a movie.

Good points about the grey areas in interpersonal relationships.

Tanza Erlambang said...

well written ...thank you for sharing