I recall a conversation with a Jewish friend in the late 1970s, when the mini-series Holocaust was shown on British television. She had lost family members to the Nazi concentration camps and felt that it was too soon for such a show to be broadcast.
While I thought it was important for younger generations to be shown what had happened, she countered that a TV series was unlikely to tell the stories of the victims with the respect and detail they demanded.
Theatre often tells the stories of monsters. For years, the Edinburgh Fringe was full of shows about Myra Hindley and Ian Brady – shows that put the criminals in focus, but not those who suffered at their hands.
What the writers of these works often forgot was something that Shakespeare knew: the tragedy of Macbeth is also the tragedy of the Macduffs. The scene in which Lady Macduff and her children are slaughtered is there for very good dramatic reasons but also for very good moral reasons.
I’m not suggesting theatre shouldn’t try to understand why people behave as they do, particularly when they behave badly. Some extraordinary theatre has come out of post-apartheid South Africa, for example, which examined the limits of forgiveness and empathy and asked: how do you live your life – and how does society operate – when former oppressors still live among you?
It was a theme that recently surfaced in Mark Ravenhill’s The Cane at London’s Royal Court, a play about the things we keep locked away – as individuals, families and as a nation – but whose weight bears down on us.
I believe it is never too soon to examine the past and its impact on the present. Over the past year, the fallout from #MeToo has prompted many theatrical responses, some of them quite brilliant, such as Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, which will tour again later this year.
Writing a play is an act of the imagination, and I have never quite subscribed to the idea that writers should only write what they know. But what is clear is that stories have ownership, and how they are told, who tells them and from what perspective is important because it affects how we receive them. I think that is what my Jewish friend felt when she criticised the Holocaust series for being made too soon.
So I cringed when I read the press release for Bitter Wheat, a new play by David Mamet that opens at the Garrick later this year, starring John Malkovich as “our hero, Barney Fein” (hero!). Fein is a “bloated monster – a studio head, who, like his predecessor, the minotaur, devours the young he has lured into his care.”
Stories have ownership, and how they are told, who tells them and from what perspective is important because it affects how we receive them
The character is clearly modelled on disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Malkovich described the show in a BBC interview as a black farce. It comes with the tag line: “Money, sex, power – you only need one of them to see Bitter Wheat at the Garrick.” Ugh.
I feel similarly about Steven Berkoff’s upcoming one-man show Harvey at London’s Playground Theatre. Earlier this year, in an interview Berkoff proclaimed: “I like evil people.” He went on to speak enthusiastically about “this creature who offers freedom, offers to change your life, because once you hear that magic word ‘Action!’ – wow, you’ll be changed from this small, simpering B-movie actress.”
Even the way that Berkoff describes his fictional version of one of Weinstein’s alleged victims is enough to put you off, suggesting as it does that women colluded with their alleged abuser in the quest for fame. Mamet, of course, has form in this department – not just in his failure to write believable female characters, but also in the 1992 play Oleanna, in which a male university professor is accused by a female student of sexual harassment. You can guess on whose side the argument is weighted.
Why do these men think they are the best people to tell this story? And why would producers think women, who make up 52% of the population and who buy more theatre tickets than men, would want to see Weinstein put centre stage at all? As Mark Shenton observed last week, discussing When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, controversy can bring in punters, but it can also derail a show.
Maybe both Harvey and Bitter Wheat will turn out to be revelatory, but there are strong indicators to suggest from both the Edinburgh Fringe and the Vault Festival that it will be female playwrights and female-led companies who will be best placed to tell the #MeToo story in all its many versions and complexities. Because women own this story. Not a couple of middle-aged playwrights whose recent hits have been sparse, and who are fascinated by male “monsters” and want to give them more stage time. They have had quite enough.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner