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Lyn Gardner: Controversial Edinburgh Fringe play may offend, but it’s a small price for freedom of expression

Robert Jack, Darrell D'Silva and Lucianne McEvoy in Ulster American at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Sid Scott Robert Jack, Darrell D'Silva and Lucianne McEvoy in Ulster American at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Sid Scott
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The Austrian playwright Peter Handke once wrote a play called Offending the Audience, which was designed to do just that. The history of British theatre includes many plays to which the audience – and critics too – have taken offence, because they felt they were gratuitously violent or included moments that should be neither seen nor heard on stage.

Some have gone so far as to call for plays to be banned: from Edward Bond’s Saved and Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain to Sarah Kane’s Blasted. Censorship often begins with people saying that they are offended. But writers use shock tactics for a purpose: to make us face up to the ugliness of the world and make connections between personal behaviours and wider society, the way power is wielded, grabbed and ceded.

Laughter can be a shock tactic too, as the savage humour of a play such as Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, currently in the West End, demonstrates. You can’t legislate for what people find funny. I once sat next to someone who giggled at Gloucester’s blinding in King Lear, presumably at the terrible shock of it.

But are audiences and commentators’ responses becoming more sensitive to acts or even talk of physical and psychological violence on stage? Particularly when those acts or talk involve women, and perhaps even more so when they are written by men? I’m curious because some of the reviews of David Ireland’s Ulster American at the Traverse suggest that might be the case.

Ireland’s three-hander is a short, sharp shock of a play that brings together an American Hollywood star, a male English theatre director and a female Northern Irish playwright in one room on the eve of rehearsals for new play set in Ulster. It’s a violently funny satire on different kinds of colonisation and oppression, the fallout from #MeToo, cultural misunderstandings and misappropriations, and the hypocrisy of liberal attitudes in general and the theatre industry in particular.

In Time Out, Andrzej Lukowski said that he was offended by Ireland’s play because of an extended sequence in which the Hollywood actor and the director talk about which female public figure they would rape. It is a sequence that is indeed both shocking and shockingly funny. While accepting that “shock should be part of the writer’s toolkit”, Natasha Tripney argues in The Stage that the play “has too much fun, pushing its buttons, and can’t resist throwing in an extended riff on rape for the hell of it”.

For the hell of it? Why would a writer sabotage his own play in that way? Why would the director let him simply throw in some gratuitous jokes for easy laughs, particularly in a play acted with such ferocious brilliance and where everything right up to its final moments feels so carefully crafted.

It may be extremely discomforting to watch, (there were several moments when I realised that my jaw was hanging open) but I don’t doubt that everyone involved interrogated every single one of the decisions they were making. Very carefully.

The rape conversation is not just thrown in to give the audience a good laugh, it is there for a reason. Actually, many reasons. The conversation is endlessly revealing not just of the men’s personal egos but also about personal ambition and how easily principle is ditched, and how those who see themselves on the left see little wrong in turning those they disagree with into hate figures.

Like Adam Lazarus’ Daughter at Canada Hub, a piece that keeps asking us where we draw the line, Ulster American makes the audience complicit: we are the fourth character and what we do or do not laugh at becomes part of the drama. That is uncomfortable, just as hearing these men talk about rape is uncomfortable and for some may be more than uncomfortable and genuinely distressing.

But a theatre that fears offending is a theatre with broken teeth. It must provoke and sometimes that will also mean that it will upset – maybe even cause offence. And that’s a small price to pay for freedom of expression.

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