Attitudes to – and the availability of – hardcore pornography may have changed since Anthony Neilson’s The Censor opened at London’s Royal Court 22 years ago, but the questions it provokes remain deeply pertinent.
When pornographer Miss Fontaine confronts a censor to persuade him that her latest work should be released, she fails to convince him that beyond the film’s graphic imagery is a work of subtle artistry. Ultimately, she wants to challenge prudish British attitudes to sex and the hypocrisy at the heart of our censorship laws.
In the title role, Jonathan McGarrity is repression personified: his ostensibly calm, reasonable façade swiftly crumbles under goading interrogation to reveal a stifled, shame-filled sexuality. Utterly uninhibited and unwaveringly seductive, Suzy Whitefield’s Miss Fontaine teases out his secret desires. In between, the censor goes home to his wife – the glassily aloof Chandrika Chevli – who is driven to infidelity through his neglect.
Director Imogen Beech focuses on exploring attitudes to sex rather than outright titillation, and intimacy coordinator Kate Lush ensures that physical contact is artfully handled. Occasionally, glimpses of incontinent rage hint at the dangers of ignoring pent-up desires.
Esteniah Williams’ in-the-round staging puts the audience at the heart of the action, with snippets of the film screened at the corners. Every now and then, wistfully romantic notes of a Rachmaninov piano concerto drift into earshot, a counterpoint to earthy onstage grunts and cries.
Neatly subverting expectation by having an empowered female voice arguing against restricting explicit acts on film, The Censor never quite addresses the issue that the porn industry remains dominated by the male gaze.
Nonetheless, RoundPeg Theatre’s production shows that when it comes to sex, Britain still has an awful lot of growing up to do.