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Mark Shenton: How should we address theatre’s sexual harassment problem?

Max Stafford-Clark. Photo: Sarah Lee Max Stafford-Clark. Photo: Sarah Lee
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In the immediate wake of the first round of revelations about Harvey Weinstein, I wrote a column in which I quoted Katherine Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who said: “Silence is the enemy of justice and these powerful men know that. I think this is going to start an avalanche, I really do. And we all know this behaviour is not limited to [a few].”

I wondered when the silence would break in London over similar stories of serial abuse, harassment or inappropriate behaviour that have circulated in Theatreland over the years.

The first case has now emerged: it seems that last month’s departure of director Max Stafford-Clark from Out of Joint, the company he founded 23 years ago, was not voluntary, after all. The Guardian reported last week that Stafford-Clark was forced out “after a formal complaint that he made lewd comments to a member of staff”.

When this story broke, I tweeted, as much in genuine sorrow as surprise:

I appear to be right that it won’t be the last. The Times reported that Equity commented this week: “There has been a significant amount of contact from members since the shocking revelations from the film industry.”

Quite a few people also immediately challenged me on Twitter: “Why is it sad? Horrific for the victims, and sad for Max? It’s unacceptable behaviour by a male in a position of power.”

I should have said ‘disappointed’ rather than sad: that this legend of the theatre seems to have repeatedly engaged in inappropriate behaviour. And, as with Weinstein, it turns out that this was known to some in the industry.

Yet no one named him until now. The reasons are complex: shame and fear for his victims, of being disbelieved and having a shadow cast on their careers. Only when a tipping point is reached and there is strength in numbers have they felt empowered to come forward.

But I am also disappointed that an idol should fall in this way – especially one who was instrumental in advancing the work of female playwrights during his long tenure as artistic director of London’s Royal Court.

That’s no excuse or mitigation for his offences. As playwright Dan Rebellato has thoughtfully argued: “To think that this is some kind of balancing act is to fall for the very power dynamics that allowed him to [behave as he did]. Max Stafford-Clark did not ‘make’ these writers; they are not dependent on him.They are each singularly talented, creative and extraordinary women and it would be every bit as true to say that they made him.”

Rebellato suggests that Stafford-Clark’s own signature directorial style and the model he created of ‘actioning’ motivations for actors meant that he, more than anyone, knew exactly what he was doing when he said the things he did.

“When he tells his assistant, ‘If you were sat on the desk there in front of me I would eat you out’, Max Stafford-Clark, the great director of new writing, with all his sensitivity to the interpersonal power dynamics when people meet and talk and boast and clash and compete and battle for territory and try to fuck with each other’s heads, knows exactly what he is doing. He is, supremely and appallingly, a master in the dynamics of social encounters. His directing does not excuse his offences; it helps explain them.”

The floodgates have opened, and that may be a good thing. But there’s also a danger – the sort that led the likes of Cliff Richard and former MP Harvey Proctor being dragged through the court of press and public opinion on unproven charges. Rumours and anecdotal gossip are not enough. We need responsible reporting and thorough investigations.

But if something else constructive has already emerged, it is the role that we can all play in challenging what we see.

Critic Alice Saville wrote in Exeunt that “male critics are routinely silent on the sexism in big-name shows (with a few welcome exceptions)”. She cited the critical responses to Young Frankenstein, which includes a scene in which, she says, a woman is threatened with rape by a 7ft monster. “Her screams are transformed into apparent squeals of delight at the size of his penis.”

This made me wonder: was I wrong to find the show as funny as I did?

The show’s associate musical director Leigh Thompson responded on Twitter: “There is no rape threat (in this show directed by a woman). Instead, Brooks takes the sexual undercurrents of the original Frankenstein and King Kong to their logical, parodic conclusion: Elizabeth is actually quite up for it. She never says no. Most of the laughs come at (and not with) the men’s old-fashioned attitudes to the women, not at the women themselves.”

The increased vigilance is good. But perhaps in this case, I can laugh again after all.

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