More Than Just Play?

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Is the long tradition of the pantomime dame under fire due to political correctness? The character’s disappearance from current shows is the latest uproar in panto-land, and it may have some eyes rolling. After all, whether Widow Twanky is offensive to cross-dressers, or a healthy way of exploring sexuality, might seem like the kind of bourgeois debate best left far ‘behind you’.

Trivial as it may appear, the debate raises an important question – that of censorship in theatre. The Widow Twanky case is a little obscure, but pantomime has been directly banned before – Snow White and the Seven Asylum Seekers was forbidden from performance in Devon in 2003. Last year, Exeter students were asked not to cross-dress in theatre because it was as offensive as blacking up. And a few years ago, a production satirizing the BNP, which toured the party’s main constituencies, was barred in Dudley two days before an EDL rally. So, is censorship in theatre ever a good thing?

In liberal England it is easy to forget the gravity of censorship abroad. The Syrian playwright Zaki Cordillo, whose work was seen to challenge Assad’s regime, was arrested in August 2012 and has not been heard of since. (PEN International is fighting his case.) A similar fate awaited the comic trio The Moustache Brothers, whose performance in 1996 which satirized the Burmese military government, staged outside the then politically imprisoned Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s house, landed them in jail for seven years.

Burma has since moved to a more civilian government, and the trio have been freed. They continue to perform in Mandalay. It is a traveller’s pilgrimage, and feeling a bit smug about my oblique political activism, I waited eagerly for the act to come on stage earlier this year. It was, sadly, cringingly bad. The show consisted of cheap jokes about not telling the main performer’s wife he fancied Jennifer Aniston, shameless merchandise plugging throughout, and a tiny granddaughter running on stage crying or wanting crisps (although that was easily the funniest bit). However the almost unbearable moment was when Par Par Lay made his one minute debut – he trudged on stage to have fake chains slapped on his wrists and kneeled with a sign saying ‘3 Time Arrested’ while we were forced to take photos.  

It seems cruel to criticize an act which once carried charged political satire, and paid the price for it. There is a possible vindication for what seems a depressing sell-out. The trio have obviously struggled to convert their act to English – so why bother? I found out that the show has not actually been totally authorized, but The Moustache Brothers are still kept under close watch, and only allowed to perform to travellers, not Burmese people themselves. This creates tourism and ironically puts money into the pockets of the government.

Parts of the US government think theatre might challenge their authority too. The Tempest was axed in Arizona as part of a list of books that might ‘promote the overthrow of the United States government’. And Shakespeare is often banned in America, for everything from being homophobic to racist, to ‘glorifying teen suicide, drugs, and disobedience of parental authority’.

My point is that maybe Snow White and the Seven Asylum Seekers was offensive. But for me, the cost of censorship almost always outweighs the positive effects of freedom of speech, and when something is damaging, we must hope for the discretion of the viewer to be enough to censor it for them self. Theatre creates a unique platform for experimentation, providing the opportunity to consider ideas which could not be so openly examined elsewhere – and so the show must go on.

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