Winter draws on (as a matter of fact I have, though I don’t see how it’s any business of yours), a whole clutch of major religious festivals rolls around again… it must be time for another brouhaha about censorship.
It has been reported – first in The Times, I believe – that David Farr’s adaptation and abridgement of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, whose Barbican run is reviewed in this issue, involved the excision of lines in which Tamburlaine orders the burning of the Koran and scorns Mohammed for taking no preventative or retributive action, railing against him as a false god [sic]: “Now, Casane, where’s the Turkish Alcoran,/And all the heaps of superstitious books/Found in the temples of that Mahomet/ Whom I have thought a god? They shall be burnt [...] Now, Mahomet, if thou have any power,/ Come down thyself and work a miracle./Thou art not worthy to be worshipped/That suffers flames of fire to burn the writ/Wherein the sum of thy religion rests...”
Farr has said, “The choices I made in the adaptation were personal about the focus I wanted to put on the main character and had nothing to do with modern politics.” However, Simon Reade, artistic director of Bristol Old Vic (a position which, until a few months ago, he held jointly with Farr), where the production premiered, is reported to have stated that the lines were cut as they “would have unnecessarily raised the hackles of a significant proportion of one of the world’s great religions”. The burning of the Koran was “smoothed over”, Reade has apparently said, and made into a more unspecific destruction of “a load of books” possibly relating to any culture or religion; burning the Koran “would have been unnecessarily inflammatory.” (Simon surely can’t have been unaware of the connotations of that turn of phrase.) And folk are up in arms. Allegedly. Well, some certainly are: John Mortimer spluttered at some length in the Daily Mail of November 25, despite apparently knowing neither who had produced the play (he kept referring to the RSC) nor that it had in fact already happened (he wrote of it as “to be produced”). But beyond the shock-horror brigade…?
I find myself wondering why, when I was so fervent about the cancellation of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti less than a year ago, I feel this is a very different and almost completely factitious case. Let’s begin with Park Honan, the Marlowe biographer(!) who has said “It is wrong to tamper with the play, wrong to shorten it and wrong to leave out the burning of the Koran…” Here’s the first point: the excision, such as it was, took place as part of an overall project of abridgement in order to make Marlowe’s two sprawling plays performable in one ordinary evening. Cuts for performance are made all the time; to argue against them entirely, as Honan has (perhaps inadvertently) done, is to take a stance as rigorous and dogmatic as that of the Samuel Beckett estate regarding variations in staging that author’s works… but to take it about the entire dramatic corpus. Or is it simply Tamburlaine which is so sacrosanct? For pity’s sake, even Hamlet and King Lear get cut for performance. It’s simply no big deal: only two of the eleven reviews of Tamburlaine reprinted here allude even vaguely to its having been abridged.
For cuts and changes are also made to aid comprehensibility. I’ve never known anyone get het up when, say, Lodovico’s response to Othello’s suicide is edited out: at the time of writing, the three words he utters meant that this was a sad and gory final full-stop to the chain of misprision and violence portrayed, but today, the phrase “O, bloody period!” usually gets nothing but sniggers, quite understandably, so out it goes and no-one bats an eyelid. Now, I’m worried that applying this point to Farr’s cut of Tamburlaine may be sophistical, but nevertheless… It’s not by any means as if all criticism of “Mahomet” and “Alcoran” was cut, so it isn’t the case that sensibilities are being cravenly pandered to. It could be argued that, by “smoothing over” the most egregious of those references, the others are more likely to be heard and taken on board within the context of the play by otherwise sensitive parties, where so specific an immolation scene might have elicited a uniform, dogmatic condemnation of both it and the other allusions which in the event passed unremarked.
Whether that was a genuine factor in Farr’s reasoning, I don’t know. But in the context of the cuts as a whole to make this playing text, how would we know what the motive was in any individual instance? Answer, because Reade and/or Farr has been honest about it, and quite possibly more fool at least one of them for doing so. (Though I’m not entirely sure how they can both have been honest. Why such an apparent contradiction between the accounts of two men who until so recently worked together with remarkable success? Can there be some ulterior theatrical-political agenda at work?) However, they each have premises to protect: in Reade’s case, the Old Vic’s Theatre Royal is a Grade I listed building, and in Farr’s, the Lyric Hammersmith (where he is now artistic director) boasts one of Frank Matcham’s finest surviving interiors. These are factors to be borne in mind in a situation which is, as Reade rightly remarks, potentially inflammatory.
I remain deeply uncomfortable with the concept of self-censorship, and I have a nasty taste in my mouth even as I rehearse these arguments for pragmatism over principle. But really, this seems to me to be a non-story, sharked up because artistic censorship is currently a hot topic and with little or no regard to the realities of the situation.
One final point occurs to me. It strikes me that the outrage here from the commentariat has been rather greater than that about Behzti – remember government minister Fiona Mactaggart arguing that such plays often ended up getting a much wider exposure as a result of, er, having their exposure curtailed? And I can’t help wondering whether the more sizeable hoo-hah in this case is partly because Christopher Marlowe is a dead white European male, and Farr and Reade likewise of the culturally dominant ethnicity; whether those manufacturing a story out of this matter feel, probably subconsciously, that Marlowe is more textually sacred than a new work by an Asian British woman, and that these directors were more obliged to stand firm for “real” culture. Conservatism is often extremely accomplished at dressing itself up in a facsimile of liberal arguments for its own ends. The Devil can quote scripture. Let’s listen for these same voices of shock and condemnation, shall we, next time a work from outside the cultural mainstream is censored?
Compare and contrast the howls of protest which signally failed to greet the opening of Howard Brenton’s Paul at the Cottesloe. (Perhaps they’d booked the coaches for its originally scheduled press night in October and then found they couldn’t get the deposit back.) Although Nicholas Hytner received a couple of hundred letters opposing the National Theatre’s staging of Brenton’s work, these were received before it had even begun playing in preview, and so were possibly not the most informed critiques of the play’s content.
Nevertheless, I was surprised that the reviews were relatively muted about that content. Quentin Letts is being no more than succinct when he says that, from a Christian standpoint, it is “without doubt blasphemous and sacrilegious”. That said, there was nothing in the play that I personally hadn't encountered up to 25 years earlier. However, for me its central argument is neither religious nor historical. It struck me as being not so much about the allure of faith per se as about the more specific conflict between personal conviction and institutionalised structures. We see the Jerusalem congregation claiming authority on grounds of precedence and tradition – to be blunt, they knew Jesus first – and attempting to neutralise Paul’s evangelical zeal by sending him off on a futile mission in which, to their amazement and frustration, he succeeds spectacularly. Towards the end of the play, the real chill conjured up by Nero has nothing to do with his absolute power or evident insanity, but rather with the plausibility of his prophecy that Christianity would become the religion of the empire: its revolutionary potential would be defused through assimilation into the establishment.
This perspective, in turn, throws fresh light on Howard Davies’ decision to stage the play in modern dress. Almost all the instability in the world today is the result of opposition between established forms and institutions on the one hand and those outside such structures but possessed of zealous individual or small-group fervour. (This analysis may apply equally to Islamic fundamentalist terrorists and to neocons pursuing their own agenda from within the upper tiers of the current American government.) What make revolutions are revolutionaries.
Of course we shall never know what Paul Rhys would have been like in the title role, but we can speculate. My reckoning is that he would have had rather more charisma as a preacher than does Adam Godley, but less ability to indicate those areas in which Paul did have doubts – principally, about his worthiness or ability to fulfil his ministry adequately. I also think that Paul’s remark about being "ugly" would be more generally seen as palpably absurd in Rhys's case, whereas Godley at least has the gangle and the lugholes to make it plausible as a harsh self-opinion. (I intend no insult by this; in fact, to me, Godley continues at certain moments to recall Peter O’Toole.) All told, I think Godley may well be a better fit for Brenton's Paul, since what we see in his case is an otherwise ordinary man propelled by nothing but his own certainty and fervour.
There have been one or two calls for censorship, or after-the-fact censure, regarding Charles Spencer’s review of Scrooge. I think these calls are mistaken. Charlie may have begun his review indecorously, but his focus exclusively on Tommy Steele was precisely what the production and Steele’s own performance demanded. This is a show whose greatest technical feat is not any of Paul Kieve’s illusions, but lighting designer Nick Richings’ achievement in conjuring up a Victorian gloom over most of the stage on a number of occasions whilst still allowing Steele to be lit gloriously. I could not discern a single moment when Steele was on stage without a follow-spot trained on him. Charlie was well within his rights to take such a concentrated line and on that basis to call the show a load of little white bull.
One production which I might wish had been censored was the London opening of the Blue Man Group. This takes us back to the territory of evangelical fervour, except that in this case it’s entirely artificial and engineered by a single-minded organisation. As front-of-house staff, uniformed in the show’s T-shirts, whipped the audience into fervour, I couldn’t help but think of the mass psychology of fascism. I know that sounds like a grotesquely exaggerated response: the Blue Men don’t, for instance, identify an outsider group and urge their persecution… no, they casually do that to members of their own following, the audience “marks”. But I always find manufactured hysteria sinister, and the regimentation in this show begins before the Blue Men even take to the stage, with messages on LED arrays calculated to get the audience responding en masse with Pavlovian efficiency. It’s the Blue Man Group’s boast that wherever their show has opened – New York, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Berlin, Toronto and now London – it has not yet closed. I think it may yet become London’s boast that this is where that record gets stymied.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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