Roald’s Dahl’s children’s book “The Witches” was dramatised by David Wood several years ago and in its professional productions, especially at Christmas, attracts its fair share of objections as a suitable treat for 7 – 12-year-old theatregoers. The letters arrive, not by the sackload, but enough: Witches = Black Arts = Paganism = The Antichrist…that kind of thing. And how Dahl, who believed passionately in spreading secular sedition, would have enjoyed it. Being polite, theatre managements always acknowledge such concerns, but up goes the curtain anyway. It’s just the way we do things in our enlightened, inclusive British society.
A new production of “The Witches” can currently be seen at the Birmingham Rep. Seriously – that’s what’s running in the 800+ seater main house, while in the studio space known as “The Door” until last weekend when it was taken off, you could see Behzti. This is the play set in a Sikh temple which so enraged elements of the local community that they pitched up last Saturday evening and started pelting the theatre with bricks. They ripped a real door, the Stage Door, off its hinges, smashed plate glass windows, and terrorised those inside the building – casts, crew, parents and children. The performance of “The Witches” was cancelled and its audience refunded their money and sent home through the police cordon in tears. And not just the children. On Monday the management took the agonising decision to close Behtzi. A bad day for freedom of speech, a bad day for human rights, but, perversely, perhaps a good day for theatrical PR.
Closing the play may have shocked the public even more than the riot, but it could have done live theatre the biggest favour since Howard Brenton’s ‘The Romans In Britain’ brought the National Theatre to catharsis 25 years ago. I cut my teeth in PR at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East during the same period when writers like Barry Keeffe and Tony Marchant were strutting their powerful stuff. But when was the last time recently you heard of live theatre inspiring anyone to take any direct action beyond walking out or booking a table for dinner afterwards? The riots which accompanied John Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World “ at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1907 seem to parallel this fundamentalist lunacy in Birmingham, but the possibly beneficial effect on the play’s success has been denied by Behzti’s closure. 100 years ago The Playboy stayed open, the playwright made his name and fortune, and the literary world gained a classic. Not only has very little seriously contentious drama been appearing, but even when it has the New Labour mainstream has tried to ignore it and shrug it off.
So overawed by mega-budget cinema and sexually obsessed TV have the media become that it’s been hard to find the Teddy Taylors and others of his ilk prepared to stand up and object loudly enough to a work of art to attract more people to want to experience it. In recent years it’s been BritArt, personified by Damian Hirst and Tracy Emin, which has been doing the outraging and stealing the headlines. By contrast, the publicity surrounding the Birmingham Rep incident has been encouraging. Seeing this as a ‘free speech under threat’ story, the newspapers have rightly devoted acres of space to it, and the sound of a good old bandwagon firing up its V12 engine can be heard quite distinctly.
Meanwhile, in a splendid example of my favourite kind of PR opportunism, the other theatre in Birmingham, the Old Rep, announced that it would be delighted to stage Behzti since its larger competitor felt unable to continue the run. Well, I suppose it would certainly sell out, but the Chief Constable might consider it a severe provocation and a further threat to life and limb. Again newsworthy, again depressing.
So the theatre should seize this opportunity as an example of what’s best about it. Of what it’s FOR. Not whether Jerry Hall is going to go topless, or whether Holly Hunter’s Irish accent passes muster, but whether the precious mirror we allow playwrights to hold up to society portrays us as we truly are – big hairy warts and all.