Index on Censorship head of arts Julia Farrington has criticised the culture sector for not doing enough to protects writers’ freedom of expression, following the recent furore over the threatened cancellation of Lee Hall’s opera Beached.
Opera North had announced it was axing the production it was working on with Hall last week, after one of the schools pulled out because of a particular reference to the main character’s homosexuality in the libretto. A few days later, however, the company released a statement saying the show would be continuing as planned, following widespread criticism of its decision, particularly from leading figures in the arts world. It also emerged that Hall had agreed to change some of the text.
Responding, Farrington said the incident shows how the culture sector only “speaks out in support of the artist’s right to freedom of expression in a crisis, rather than in principle”.
She added artists risk losing these rights if the sector does not “positively assert” them.
“It also illustrates a new emerging form of self-censorship – where people take it on themselves to censor the artist, without apparent authority and usually, as Lee Hall said himself, to protect someone else’s sensibilities,” she said.
The head of arts at Index on Censorship, which describes itself as the leading organisation “promoting freedom of expression”, warned that many productions today blur the lines “between audience, participant and artist”.
She added: “We need to make sure that the artist’s voice does not lose out in an often knee-jerk reaction to silence ideas that might be contentious or challenging.”
When it was announced originally that Hall’s opera was being cancelled, the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain criticised the move.
Speaking to The Stage following Opera North’s announcement it is to stage the show as planned, the guild’s president, David Edgar, described the uproar around the opera as “a real wake-up call” for the industry.
“I think it’s a reminder for arts organisations to draw lines in the sand and be firm,” he said.
He added that theatre needs to represent all aspects of life, even if it deals with contentious issues or offends people
“If by representing something you are said to condone it, most dramatic literature would have to be banned,” he said.