Holly Williams: By cancelling Andrea Dunbar’s play, the Royal Court has silenced an urgent female voice

London's Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey London's Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
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The Royal Court deserves a long and loud round of applause for the way it has responded to revelations about sexual harassment in the theatre industry. Vicky Featherstone has led the way, with bold initiatives and bold decision-making.

But the decision this week to cancel Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Out of Joint’s touring revival of Andrea Dunbar’s 1982 play – which features an older married man sleeping with two teenage girls – feels like a misstep.

The Royal Court was concerned about the production’s association with director Max Stafford-Clark, fired from Out of Joint for alleged sexual harassment. Quite right too. It’s absolutely an issue that needed addressing, and would have loomed large over the production at this venue: Stafford-Clark was artistic director at the Royal Court from 1979 to 1993.

To stage it, or not to stage it, must have been a very difficult decision. Just letting it go on obviously risks accusations of hypocrisy. Plus, it’s a new-writing theatre; revivals have a celebratory aspect. And absolutely no one wants to celebrate Stafford-Clark right now.

Royal Court pulls Max Stafford-Clark production following harassment allegations

But was cancelling the production really the best solution? The result is that a play written by a woman, then 19 years old – it is based on her own lived experience – is not being staged. A show that’s now directed by a woman – Kate Wasserberg – won’t be seen and heard.

This feels unfair – as though Stafford-Clark is still the most important guy in the room

This feels unfair. It feels as if Stafford-Clark is still the most important guy in the room, as though someone accused of abusing his power is still too powerful. By cancelling the play, the Royal Court is imbuing his actions with greater import than the creative vision of the woman who wrote the play, and the team currently touring it.

I have not see the production, but I’d be very surprised if the context of recent months hasn’t fed into the thinking about this show. And if Wasserberg couldn’t put her own thoughtful stamp on it, if Stafford-Clark’s involvement was an insurmountable taint, then surely Out of Joint wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) be touring it at all?

Does it do disservice to Dunbar’s play to present it in a context so bound up with Stafford-Clark? This is a reasonable argument. But surely it also does disservice to Dunbar’s play to suggest the contextual penumbra of a man’s actions must necessarily cloud and obscure a woman’s words. While some theatregoers would be thinking about it, I hope most could look beyond it too.

And if staging it at the Royal Court is thorny and crunchy and painful… well, perhaps it should be? The Court has so brilliantly led the way on this, it could have been an opportunity to ask more difficult question about what we do with plays and theatrical legacies in the light of certain revelations. Instead, cancelling reads like shutting down rather than opening up that debate.

The waters were further muddied by the Court’s initial press release, which suggested it was “conflictual” for it to stage a work “with its themes of grooming and abuses of power on young women”. This is obviously wildly unhelpful, seeming to imply that the Royal Court can no longer be home to works that tackle such themes – even if they are written by women, about their own stories. Exactly the stories that we need to be hearing right now.

It was surely a muddled statement, and the Royal Court quickly stated on twitter that “it is the background and genesis” of the production, “not a rejection of the play or Andrea’s voice, which remains urgent”.

This is a welcome clarification. But the upshot is still that this urgent voice is not heard.

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