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Richard Jordan: Censorship by media spells a dark week for the arts

Gerald Finley as Guillaume Tell. Photo: Clive Barda Gerald Finley as Guillaume Tell. Photo: Clive Barda
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It’s been some time since a theatre production made the front page of a daily newspaper but one week ago the London Evening Standard ran a large picture of Jessica Chamberlain – an unknown actress – with the headline: “Guillaume Tell opera rape scene row actress revealed”.

The headline related to the controversial 10-second scene included in the Royal Opera House’s new four-hour production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell in which a young girl is gang raped by army officers. Met with angry boos by its opening night audience, it was enough for the Evening Standard to give it front page coverage.

It’s often said that controversy sells tickets, but this is a dangerously misrepresented expression. More often than not, the controversy isn’t to do with the plot (as it is in Guillaume Tell) but stems from some social faux pas. In 1980, The Romans in Britain became a cause celebre in part because of its depiction of homosexual rape, but more because of its subsequent legal battle with Mary Whitehouse.

Sensationalised media reporting now pulls focus on the arts

In their attempt to gain more coverage with shrinking column inches, sensationalised media reporting now pulls focus on the arts. A few weeks ago the media were telling us that Bad Jews’ advertising had been banned by London Transport due to its title. Ultimately, that report probably did more for the play’s coverage than the actual cost of a Transport for London campaign. But when we look back, is this the moment that will be remembered and referred to rather than the excellent writing of its playwright Joshua Harmon and the important questions his play raised?

In the case of Guillaume Tell, it was only beyond the front page headline and inside the paper that there was an explanation by its director Kasper Holten that the rape scene included in this production (set during the 1990s Balkan conflict) “puts the spotlight on the brutal reality of women being abused during war time, and sexual violence being a tragic fact of war”.

Perhaps the audience’s reaction to the scene says more about them than the actual production itself. Had it not been an attractive, young, white actress featured would the production have even made the same headlines?

Jessica Chamberlain, thrust into the limelight, declined to comment, but that didn’t stop a tweeted picture of her wearing sunglasses and hiding behind a copy of the Standard with her face on it being published by the same newspaper.

The story failed to connect or address any of the issues behind the inclusion of such a scene in the first place. The Royal Opera House, despite initial refusal, has now caved in to the pressure and toned down the scene, effectively allowing itself to be censored by media.

The fact that art can provoke, challenge and entertain through its themes is what makes it vital. Irrespective of the production’s own generally poor reviews, last week’s Evening Standard front page represented a new low in arts reporting.

For those of us working in the theatre who believe in its power and legacy, this past week in British theatre should be seen as significant and tragic. That is something we should all feel concerned about.

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