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Mark Shenton: Do theatre shows need ‘trigger warnings’?

BU21 at Theatre503. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
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Theatre is a place of comfort and pleasure, but sometimes it is also a place where we go to be taken out of our comfort zone. I recently had the double whammy (physical and emotional discomfort) at Trafalgar Studios’ intimate second space, where I saw BU21, an exceptional new play by Stuart Slade. It’s a chillingly plausible reconstruction of the aftermath of an aeroplane brought down by terrorists over Fulham; witnesses to the attack meet in a weekly support group.

The play is grim, gripping and surprisingly funny. Director Dan Pick’s production is also personally disconcerting. An edgy chancer – a city boy – unnervingly crosses the fourth wall to ask the audience if they’re enjoying this disaster porn, and implicates us for shelling out up to £35 a ticket for this kind of entertainment. Spotting my notebook, he asked me if I was reviewing. Then he mocked me: “But we close in three days!”

Of course I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. The play makes you ponder bigger questions: how would you react if a terrorist attack of the sort that is reported in the news every day actually happened to you?

Readers of this paper regularly go to places of public entertainment. When armed Chechen terrorists took over a crowded Moscow theatre in 2002, 170 people who were watching a musical that night were killed during the siege. I remember thinking that if I had been in Moscow, that’s exactly what I might have been doing – the only time I ever visited Moscow was to see a musical. When terrorists overran the Bataclan Theatre in Paris in 2015 during a concert by the Eagles of Death Metal, killing 89 concertgoers and leaving hundreds more injured, I was saddened but also relieved to think that I was unlikely to have been there.

Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is a happenstance – it is statistically unlikely to involve you. Yet for those who were there, it would have been a life-changing event. Would anyone directly caught up in the 7/7 attacks on London, for instance, want to see BU21? Would it reawaken their trauma and force them to relive it? Or would it be somehow cathartic?

Most people don’t book for plays completely blind. When I invite someone to the theatre, they often ask: “What’s it about?” Audiences need to take responsibility for finding that out themselves by reading the theatre’s plot description on its website or searching out reviews. But there’s always the danger a review might contain a spoiler that takes away some of the pleasures of discovery.

London’s Royal Court has anticipated the concern that audiences could find certain work distressing by posting a paragraph about trigger warnings on its website. It states: “We don’t want to spoil anyone’s experience of a new play at the Royal Court and therefore avoid giving too much away when promoting the play. It’s often the unexpected shared moments and plot twists that capture the audience and create the debate and conversation beyond the performance.

“However, we’re also conscious that these moments can be particularly distressing for some individuals. If there are certain themes that you know would cause you extreme distress and you’d like to speak to one of the Royal Court team to find out more about a show before you book, call the box office or email us.”

Theatres routinely warn theatregoers of the use of loud sounds, strobe lighting or stage nudity, but how far can they go beyond this? Do audiences for King Lear, in which Gloucester has his eyes gouged out, need to be warned about this extreme violence?

Of course we know it’s make-believe: this is the theatre, after all. But it still didn’t stop scores of theatregoers fainting during Shakespeare’s Globe’s production of Titus Andronicus in 2014. A spokesperson for the Globe told the Independent at the time: “Two to four people per performance either fainted or left feeling queasy.” Director Lucy Bailey told the paper: “I find it all rather wonderful that people can connect so much to the characters and emotion that they have such a visceral effect. I used to get disappointed if only three people passed out.” Bailey also told me: “You instinctively know the blood is fake, but here you can’t see that it is, because it isn’t filtered by lighting. So your senses take on a very different perception of it. We were also canny in using dark blood all the time – usually in the theatre it is too bright so people don’t believe it.”

These responses are real; actual fainting isn’t faked. But sometimes it can be difficult to separate things that cause genuine offence to members of the audience from those whose offence is manufactured. You have only to read Twitter with its daily explosions of outrage to find that just about anything causes offence to someone else.

Theatre can’t police it all; it is part of its job to cause offence, as well as respond to it.

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