Aleks Sierz | Sunday, 05 April 2009

Trust the people, not the censors

It’s not often that arts news from Malta causes a stir in Britain, but the banning of Stitching, a play by Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson, has been widely publicized, and deplored. For me, a London-based theatre critic and academic whose specialisation is contemporary theatre, this ban feels like a throwback to the 1950s, when the censor, the Royal smut-hound, tried to inhibit all our best playwrights.
It is true that Stitching, which was first staged in Edinburgh in 2002, is controversial and difficult: it is a play about adult themes for adult audiences. In it, a young couple struggle to overcome the stresses and strains of being in a sexual relationship. This involves questions of fidelity, past violence and the decision to have a child.
But as well as being a beautifully written play, with direct and expressive dialogues, Stitching is a thrilling experiment in theatre form. The scenes often flash forwards and backwards, and some of them are enactments of the couple’s sexual fantasies. Most revealing of all, the dialogues are brilliantly realized psychological double-binds, intricately written and excruciatingly familiar.
Like the other British playwrights that came to prominence in the 1990s, and whose work I describe in my bestselling book, In-Yer-Face Theatre (Faber, 2001), Neilson is a writer who has the courage to explore the dark side of humanity, and the imagination to create vivid stage pictures of joy as well as distress. Without doubt, Stitching is one of the best British plays of the past decade.
Having seen the play, which surely gives me an advantage over the Education and Culture Minister Dolores Cristina, I can confirm that it is a provocative and thought-provoking account of a real relationship, looking at what is best as well as worst in human beings. Her fixation on one or two lines in 50-page script is both highly selective and depressingly philistine. So the Culture Minister lacks culture, and who will educate the Education Minister?
Neilson gives his characters strong lines because they are a couple who are uninhibited about discussing how and why their love affair went wrong. Both are searching for an emotional truth that constantly eludes them; both are trying to rediscover their early sensations of love for one another. Both are frank because their feelings are still raw. The alternative is mute resentment – would that really be preferable?
True, this play is occasionally shocking but it never shocks for no reason. Every line is justified by the context of the couple’s conflicts, every confrontation pushes the story onwards. There is tenderness as well as brutality here: it is genuinely artful as well as being persuasive.
I have to say that I’m puzzled by Fr Peter Serracino Inglott’s comments in the Sunday Times. Since he hasn’t seen the play, surely he is in no position to judge whether it “it relies almost exclusively on verbal exchange for its effect”. I have seen it and can assure him that it also requires the “theatrically innovatory language” which he saw as a “redeeming feature” of Sarah Kane’s Blasted. In the original production, to cite just one instance, scene six was performed as a wordless grapple to the music of Iggy Pop.
Fr Peter seems unwilling to imagine how the shock delivered by a stage play might awaken a moral response, or, more profoundly, the sense of fear and pity typically engendered by tragedy. But isn’t that precisely what Aristotle was describing? To say that the Greek philosopher was talking essentially about “enjoyment” is like saying that the Sermon on the Mount is light entertainment.
Finally, it is highly ironic that Fr Peter claims that breaking taboos in the theatre is “a futile smashing-down of open doors” when the door that would enable the inhabitants of Malta to actually see the play and make up their own minds has been so effectively slammed shut by their own Culture Minister.
Both these local bigwigs are making a mistake. The most effective way to reach a just conclusion about a play is to show it to an audience. If Cristina or Fr Peter had real faith in their ideas, they would not be afraid to allow this; since they clearly wish to ban the play, they have no faith in their own opinions. If so, why should anyone else believe them? Come on guys, trust the people.

Dr Aleks Sierz is author of In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today (Faber, 2001). He is Visiting Research Fellow at Rose Bruford College, and teaches postwar British drama at the London branch of Boston University. Currently theatre critic at large for Tribune.


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