In January 2017, Natasha Tripney wrote a list titled: “Five things I’d like to see in theatre in 2017.” Top of the list: “Stop the sexism.” Her chief target was the gratuitous depiction of sexualised violence against women.
The previous year, Rupert Goold’s Richard III saw Ralph Fiennes’ limping, disjointed Richard rape Aislin McGuckin’s Elizabeth – were we expected to be particularly repulsed by a rapist’s physical deformity? The sexual blackmail with which Hedda Gabler is obliquely threatened became explicit in Ivo van Hove’s production, with Ruth Wilson left broken on the floor, aesthetically draped in spittle and household fluids. As Tripney wrote in her review: “I’m fed up of watching women being violated, fed up of watching them being humiliated… turn the page.”
Tripney’s 2017 wish list caused a storm. Lyn Gardner made an excellent case in defence of Van Hove’s Hedda, arguing that the severity of the violence inflicted on this Hedda made her suicide unusually plausible. But there were plenty of us who felt Tripney had put her finger on something relentless and exhausting about our experience of contemporary theatre – and we were cheering her on.
It’s been nearly three years since Tripney’s demand to “turn the page”. Since then, we’ve had #MeToo. But look at what’s on stage, and often it seems nothing has changed.
This summer saw a disastrous revival of Man of La Mancha, in which the self-styled Don Quixote fails to save the tavern wench he calls Dulcinea (sweetheart) from violent gang rape. We have to watch her menaced twice – once Quixote fights off her predators and gets to feel a hero; the second time he is absent and feels a failure. But all is salvageable. Dulcinea arrives and forgives him, affirming on his deathbed his fantasies of knighthood. Our male character arc is complete.
The issue isn’t just dated revivals. Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison, which closes this week, is a brilliant new play. But while it frequently portrays the bumbling assassins of Alexander Litvinenko as comic relief, halfway through it decides it had better remind us these are very bad guys. So one of them grips an airline attendant by the arm and threatens her with gang rape if she doesn’t let him on to a flight. It’s menacing and effective. But we meet the female victim for all of three minutes. It’s a moment of sexual violence as character development for the predator.
As Prebble is herself an avowed and smart feminist, perhaps others will disagree with my reading of this scene. But this stuff just seems to keep happening. At Sadler’s Wells this summer, Matthew Bourne’s attempt to spice up Romeo and Juliet saw Juliet’s rape by Tybalt, which critic Gwendolyn Smith aptly described as a “lazy semaphore” for toxic masculinity.
And laziness is the problem. Theatre should tackle sexual violence, but writers and directors need to ask questions about who is served when they aestheticise it. They need to justify it. I’d like to go a week without watching a woman sexually humiliated on stage.
Kate Maltby is a columnist and critic. She currently writes regularly for the Financial Times and the Guardian, as well as a range of US publications. She sits on the board of Index on Censorship and this year’s judging panel for the David Cohen Prize for Literature. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/kate-maltby