Set during the mining strikes of the mid 70s Billy Elliot The Musical is full of comments about the economic and political turmoil of the Thatcher/Reagan Era. One song entitled “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” has been the focus of some controversy this week after the passing of Baroness Thatcher. But do we really need to change our theatre for the sake of being polite?
A stage musical version of Daldry’s award winning film Billy Elliot the musical reflects the huge political rebellion that took place across much of the north of England during the 1970s. “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” (composed by Sir Elton John with lyrics by Lee Hall) opens the second act of the musical and speaks quite heavily about the anger felt by the unionised miners and their families towards the then prime minister; including lines such as “We all celebrate today ’cause it’s one year closer to your death”. Given recent events there was some discussion amongst the artistic team about whether or not to include the song in performance; eventually the decision was put to the audience (who overwhelmingly felt it should be performed). I assume that the decision was offered as a safety net for the company should there be any backlash from audience members but it does raise an interesting question. Should we as artists offer the option for censorship to an audience explicitly?
There is an unspoken agreement between audience and artist that by entering into the performance space you are placing yourself in the hands of the artists; whether that be for a rigidly realist performance of Chekov or a live art performance featuring sensory deprivation. On the flip side the artist should understand that they are responsible for your person and for the period of the performance they are responsible for your mental wellbeing. As audience members we essentially sacrifice the right to censor when we walk in the door and there isn’t a great deal we can do apart from leaving outright. We have actively made a decision to enter the performance space and the given world and as such can we really expect to be offered the choice at every juncture to say “no, I don’t want to see this”? Part of the role as an audience member or reader is to receive (and sometimes interact) with the work and by extension the political, ideological and social commentary that runs alongside. A quick Google search can usually give an indication of subject matter and from that most people should be able to make an educated guess. In this case anyone with an ounce of knowledge understands that when Billy Elliot is sold as a story being told against the back-drop of the mining strikes of the 1970s that there is likely to be a good deal of anti-tory and more specifically anti-Thatcher moments. If that is likely to cause offense to you then surely you should just not go see it? Though admittedly this isn’t half as baffling as the people who were surprised to see Daniel Radcliffe in all his glory when they went to see him in Shaffer’s Equus.
This argument hinges on the concept that theatre and by extension art is free to say what it wishes; unfortunately that’s not always true. There exists a literal book of things you can and can’t do on a public stage without the dispensation of the appropriate party. This ranges from nudity to profanity and acts that may be considered “offensive and vulgar”. Up until the 1960s that powerful figure was that of the Lord Chaimberlain, a royal office based out of St. James Palace, London; with the rights to refuse performing licence he (for it was always a he) deemed unfit, often without reason. Over the years many different companies battled with the Lord Chamberlain on a variety of subjects; some, like the famous Windmill Theatre in London were successful many were not. In the 60’s this office was one of the many things devolved to local council responsibilities and currently there exists a department in all local councils specifically for the licencing of public events and the list of things you can’t do isn’t exactly small. These restrictions (some artists may even go so far as to say active censorships) exist for the protection of social and moral decency and the safety of the community at large; but should the ability to label art as ‘inappropriate’ or risky be held by local government? By virtue of entering into the theatre you’re entering into a already heavily censored space; combined with the practice of many theatres to warn their patrons of any ‘sensitive’ matters like nudity it’s still surprising that there theatres receive as many complaints as they do. Maybe herein lies the answer.
TV and film are regulated by companies like Ofcom and BBFC (British Board for Film Classification); they regulate the age ratings of films and the appropriate broadcast times for television programmes (the watershed for programmes containing the hilariously vague term ‘adult themes’). They have, with relative success, put in place a variety of systems so the public understand likely content, from the film ratings we all know and understand to the disclaimers and alert notices prior to transmission. In a similar way video games are subject to the Pan European Game Information system (PEGI); a system of icons, symbols and ratings that indicate content. Perhaps that is the future of theatre; “warning this play has been rated ’18’ for graphic nudity”. There is one small difference, Ofcom, BBFC and PEGI all operate as regulatory groups and as such have no control of the viewer; a parent can buy a high-rated DVD for their teenage child for example. There are various procedures in place to avoid accidental transmission of sensitive material, like Ofcom’s supposed f-word to c-word ratio for the writers of BBC television programme The Thick of It. Here in theatre we have a much greater control over the viewer but should we; assuming sufficient information prior to the performance is it not acceptable to treat them like any other audience? We don’t need to babysit an audience; I disagree that Billy Elliot The Musical gave the audience an option, as artists we should make our art, if an audience doesn’t want to see it they know where the door is.