Staging Shakespearean Dissent: plays that protest, provoke and slip by the censors

Spring 2016 cover

Order your copy of the spring issue of Index on Censorship here.

Saturday 23 April marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The Bard’s work has long been used to tackle difficult or controversial issues; issues that most often only received an audience due to the cloak of his respectability. To honour the occasion Index has put together a list of all things Shakespeare.

Shakespeare special report

Shakespeare and his role in protest and dissent is the theme of the spring 2016 issue of Index on Censorship magazine:  Staging Shakespearean Dissent; Plays That Protest, Provoke and Slip by the Censors. The issue features pieces that explore how the bard’s plays have been used to circumvent censorship and tackle difficult issues around the world; from Bollywood adaptions to Othello in apartheid-era South Africa and a ground-breaking recent performance of Romeo and Juliet between Kosovan and Serbian theatres, along with reports on theatre upsetting people in the USA, and interviews with directors around the world

How Shakespeare’s plays smuggle in protest

Index on Censorship magazine editor Rachael Jolley introduces our Shakespeare special issue with her editorial piece, How Shakespeare’s plays smuggle protest. In this piece Jolley discusses how the work of “established” or “historic” playwrights gave actors the chance to tackle themes that would otherwise never be allowed.

Simon Callow: Plays, protest and the censor’s pen

Shakespeare was no stranger to censorship, from the Elizabethan to Jacobean police states. In this extract actor and theatre director Simon Callow looks at how his plays amused monarchs and dictators but also prompted their anger.

My Mate Shakespeare

My Mate Shakespeare recasts the playwright as a brandy loving bingo addict, struggling in a war zone. The poem, which was published in the spring issue of Index on Censorship magazine, was written by poet Edin Suljic following a visit to his home country, Former Yugoslavia. The issue also features an interview with the poet, who fled to London in 1991 ahead of the country’s impending war, discussing his inspiration for the poem and his involvement with theatre group Bards Without Borders.

Quiz: Are you a Shakespeare expert?

How well do you know Shakespeare? Take our quiz and see how much you know about the Bard and his work.

Student reading list: theatre and censorship

The theatre and censorship reading list is a compilation of articles from the magazine archive covering theatre censorship across the world. From the censorship of Romeo and Juliet in US high school textbooks to Janet Suzman’s controversial production of Othello in apartheid-era South Africa, to the banning of performances of Macbeth in actors’ homes in Czechoslovakia.

Ben Jennings: Modern Shakespearean imagery

In an interview with magazine editor Rachael Jolley an award-winning cartoonist, Ben Jennings, discusses his design for the latest Index on Censorship magazine cover on the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.

A global guide to using Shakespeare to battle power

Hitler was a Shakespeare fan; Stalin feared Hamlet; Othello broke ground in apartheid-era South Africa; and Brazil’s current political crisis can be reflected by Julius Caesar. Across the world different Shakespearean plays have different significance and power. In our global guide to using Shakespeare to battle power some of our writers talk about some of the most controversial performances and their consequences.

Order your full-colour print copy of our Shakespeare magazine special here, or take out a digital subscription from anywhere in the world via Exact Editions (just £18* for the year). Each magazine sale helps Index on Censorship fight for free expression worldwide.

*Will be charged at local exchange rate outside the UK.

Magazines are also on sale in bookshops, including at the BFI and MagCulture in London as well as on Amazon and iTunes. MagCulture will ship anywhere in the world.

Theatre and censorship

Spring 2016 cover

Order your copy of the Staging Shakesearean dissent here.

Order your copy of Index on Censorship here

To mark the release of the spring 2016 issue of Index on Censorship magazine Index has compiled a reading list of articles from the magazine archives covering the censorship of theatre. The latest issue, Staging Shakespearean Dissent, takes a look at how Shakespeare’s plays have allowed directors to tackle issues that would have otherwise been censored in countries around the world.

Egoli — City of Gold

August 1982 vol. 11 no. 4

Performances of South African play Egoli, by writer Matsemela Manaka, went ahead at a Johannesburg theatre without being censored, yet the printed version – an extract of which is featured in this article – was banned. Egoli, which means “city of gold”, focuses on the plight of migrant mine workers in South Africa. Its two characters, John Moalusi Ledwaba and Hamilton Mahonga Silwane, were in prison at the same time: one for a political crime, the other for rape and murder. Now they work in the gold mines, while their families attempt to farm in the “homelands”.

Read the full article here.

Knife edge 

March 2015 vol. 44 no. 1

Lucien Bourjeily’s 2013 play Will It Pass or Not? was banned by Lebanon’s censorship bureau, yet his 2015 play For Your Eyes Only, Sir was approved after some minor changes, despite the play including scenes from its banned prequel. Aimée Hamilton talks to Bourjeily about why his new play escaped the censors when his previous one didn’t, and what inspired it; and For Your Eyes Only, Sir is translated into English for the first time for Index on Censorship magazine.

Read the full article here.

Oh! How I miss the termite  

July 1979 vol. 8 no. 4

Despite government assurances that it was lifting restrictions on Brazilian stage productions in April 1979, theatres were among the most censored over the next decade. Every play had to be submitted to the censor in Brasilia before it was staged, and a complete rehearsal had to take place in the presence of a censor of the town in which the play was being performed. In December 1978 one of Brazil’s best know playwrights Plínio Marcos, notorious for having 18 of his works suppressed without performance, wrote the play Oh! How I Miss the Termite to be read only, believing he could not get the play performed publicly.

Read the full article here.

My Temptation

November 1986 vol. 15 no. 10

In an interview with Czech exile Karel Hvizdala, for inclusion in a book of interviews he was working on, Czechoslovakian playwright Vaclav Havel, who was unable work in his profession in his own country – where nothing he had written had been published or performed since 1969 – speaks about his latest plays Largo Desolato and Temptation.

Read the full article here.

A censored life 

February 1985 vol. 14 no. 1

Karel Kyncl tells the story theatre and film actress Vlasta Chramostová, her Living Room Theatre, and how Shakespeare was used as a form of resistance. In the 1960s and 70s Czechoslovakian actors put on performances of Macbeth in houses, which they called Living Room Theatre. However, Shakespeare was seen as an enemy of socialism by Czechoslovakia police, who began to harass the actors. The actors continued to perform despite pressure from the police but eventually some of these actors were driven into exile.

Read the full article here.

Shame in Birmingham 

May 2005 vol. 34 no. 2

Janet Steel discusses the censorship Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti faced when the British-Pakistani playwright attempted to put on her production Behzti at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. The local Sikh community called for the play to be banned, stating it incited racial hatred, which led to Bhatti receiving threats because of her work.

Read the full article here.

Nan Levinson: Bowdler revisited

March 1990 vol. 19 no. 3

Nan Levinson discusses censorship of Romeo and Juliet in textbooks in American schools. Artist Janet Zweig read an article written by a student about the discrepancies between the play in his school textbook and the version he saw on stage. Over 300 lines had been cut from the play, the majority of which contained sexual references. Zweig spoke to publishers and found the publishers that didn’t cut lines from the textbook didn’t sell as many as those who did. She went on to make a book from the 336 lines that were cut from the textbooks, part of which is featured in this article.

Read the full article here.

Dame Janet Suzman: Stage directions in South AfricaJune 2014 vol. 43 no.2

Dame Janet Suzman’s 1987 production of Othello in South Africa caused a huge amount controversy due the production showing a relationship between a black man and a white woman during the apartheid. Many people left the production in protest and sent threatening letters, however the play escaped being banned or censored because it was Shakespeare. In this article Suzman discusses why she chose to put on such a controversial production and how through Shakespeare they escaped the censors.

Read the full article here.

The fate of Tang Xianzu

November 1998 vol. 27 no. 6

The long awaited revival of a 400-year-old classical opera, in rehearsal at Shanghai’s Kunju Theatre, was called off by the Shanghai Bureau of Culture. It accused the director of introducing “archaic, superstitious and pornographic” elements into his production and vetoed its export first to New York and subsequently to France, Australia and Hong Kong. Mu Dan Ting, (Peony Pavilion), had not been performed in its entire act since it was written by Tang Xianzu in 1598 during the Ming Dynasty, as it was written out of classical repertoire under the communists. However director Yang Lian believes this time round its banning has more to do with political manoeuvering than the nature of the opera itself.

Read the full article here.

Theatre Censorship

August 1980 vol. 9 no. 4 23-28

“Censorship in the theatre has always been more petty and strict than censorship in general – that of literature, for instance. Sadly, it has often been the finest examples of Russian drama that have not reached the stage until several years – sometimes decades – after they were written.” Anna Tamarchenko discusses the censorship of Russian theatre throughout the years.

Read the full article here.

Order your copy of Index on Censorship here or take out a digital subscription via Exact Editions (just £18 for the year, with a free trial).

Simon Callow: Plays, protests and the censor’s pen

Spring 2016 cover

Spring 2016 cover

When I was at drama school in the early 1970s, there was a middle-aged Iranian on the directors’ course called Rokneddin. He’d been ejected from the Shah’s Iran for staging subversive productions. Rokneddin was no political firebrand:  he had simply tried to put on Shakespeare’s history plays, which, like all plays in which a king died, were banned in Iran under the Pahlavi dynasty. The plays reminded people all too vividly that the divine right of kings had severe limits.

After the revolution Rokneddin went back, and tried to ply his trade again: this time he disappeared into prison never to be seen again.  At the time the Shah’s proscription was seen as the act of an exotic tyrant. Not a bit of it. We can do just as well at home. During the period of George III’s madness in 18th century Britain, King Lear was banished from the stage because the parallels were too obvious.

Shakespeare has had this unique symbolic significance for a long time. From the end of the 17th century, initially in England, and then increasingly in translation across Europe, his stock began its  inexorable rise, until he was acclaimed across the whole of the Western world, to a degree never before or since equalled by any other writer. His work was a mirror in which people of widely diverse cultures could see themselves – in Scandinavia, in the Near East, in Spain and the Americas.

He was fervently admired in France, despite his barbaric non-conformism to the laws of classical drama. In Germany and Russia, he was clasped to those nations’ bosoms, claimed by them as, respectively, German and Russian.  Shakespeare’s perceived universality – which expanded in the 19th and 20th centuries to include Africa, India, China and Japan – inevitably meant that his work would be recruited to embody the positions of various political and philosophical groupings. And with this came, equally inevitably, censorship and suppression.

Not that Shakespeare was a stranger to censorship in his own time, living and working as he did in, first, the Elizabethan, then the Jacobean, police state where people’s actions and their very thoughts were under constant surveillance. The theatre in which he worked was heavily patrolled by the Master of the Revels, who was charged not only with providing entertainment for the monarch, but with averting controversy, particularly in the sphere of foreign relations. Sometimes this meant deleting matters offensive to allies, sometimes it meant suppressing criticism – or perceived criticism – of the crown, sometimes, more rarely, it meant eliminating morally or sexually offensive material. The theatre was a minefield of significance for dramatists and their companies. Even a simple dig at German and Spanish dress had to be cut from Much Ado About Nothing because of contemporary diplomatic sensitivities. But the reach of the censor went well beyond the explicit …

This is an abridged version of Simon Callow’s in-depth feature for Index on Censorship magazine’s special Shakespeare issue. To read the full piece, which also looks at the role of the Master of the Revels (who Callow portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love), buy a print copy or download a digital version via Exact Editions. Each magazine sale helps Index on Censorship fight for free expression worldwide.

How Shakespeare’s plays smuggle in protest

Spring 2016 cover

Spring 2016 cover

Index on Censorship magazine editor Rachael Jolley introduces our Shakespeare special issue, which, as the 400th anniversary of his death approaches, explores how his plays have been used to circumvent censorship and tackle difficult issues around the world, from Bollywood adaptions to Othello in apartheid-era South Africa and a ground-breaking recent performance of Romeo and Juliet between Kosovan and Serbian theatres

Theatre, in whatever form it takes, tells us something about society. Sometimes the stories are uncomfortable, but they need to be explored.

Telling stories that challenge societal realities requires performers to negotiate their way around obstacles. In authoritarian countries performing works of “established” or “historic” playwrights can give actors the chance to tackle significant themes that would otherwise never be allowed.

Poet Robert Frost said writing free verse was like playing tennis with the net down. But where nets are still up, performances of Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Cicero may squeeze over a few shots, where a new and unknown writer’s work would face far more rigorous opposition from the authorities. On the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, in this issue we take a look at the words of the son of Stratford and why they are still performed around the world.

One of theatre’s challenges is that it must continue to make sense to all audiences, the young, the old and everyone in between. Shakespeare’s plays can be ballsy, straightforward and about the ordinary. This is no doubt why his words have had influence for so long, while other playwrights have been forgotten.

This appeal, and relevance, remains a challenge for writers and directors. After university, I worked for a few months in the legendary Hull Truck theatre in the north-east of England, led by artistic director and playwright John Godber. What Godber did in a working-class city where few people would think, “Hey, let’s go see a play tonight”, was to write and stage plays that sounded like they were about normal people and normal things.

The most famous, Bouncers, is about the people who do door security in nightclubs. A tale of ordinary life, it was funny, and lots of people came to see it in the little theatre in the untarted-up bit of Hull, around the corner from where millions of milk floats loaded up. And people who didn’t normally go to the theatre thought it was alright for them and told their families and their friends it was a laugh, and so more and more of them came to see more Godber plays. I re-read Bouncers a month ago, and I realised (I guess, I had forgotten), it was more than just funny. There’s real stuff in there about how people live and what they dream and how they find a compromise with life, and what needs to change. Hard stuff. Important stuff. Social comment. Hidden in there among the jokes.

That’s how theatre informs us of lives beyond our own. And that’s why, sometimes, governments fear it. And that’s why in another place, and under another type of government, a play like Bouncers might slip its social messages by those hard-line censors who might not think it’s about anything but some fat bald guys who work on the door at a dodgy nightclub having a chat.

But the other role of stories, plays and art is that they also have the power to goad, protest and say stuff that normally can’t be said. Sometimes stories make what had been outrageous or out-of-the-ordinary feel more acceptable. Sometimes fiction can go places where newspapers can’t, but still deal with the real.

Arthur Miller’s 1952 play The Crucible used the Salem Witch Trials to take a poke at the power of accusation and public panic happening in McCarthyite trials, with their accusations of “communism” which left thousands of people blacklisted and unemployed. People from postmen to Hollywood producers were called to give evidence to the House of Un-American Activities Committee, which aimed to “out” those with left wing or pro-Communist views as dangerous. Despite the horrifically charged climate of the “reds under the bed” era, which meant former stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles were forced into exile, Miller was still able to get his play produced. It remains a classic, still relevant after all these years.

The similarities between Salem and the McCarthy trials were obvious to those that thought about it. But sometimes those who are appointed as censors are not the thinking types. So ideas slip by them. And that can be useful.

Shakespeare, of course, has plenty of controversy, inspiration and power within his plays. It’s just less obvious to those who aren’t paying attention. There’s nothing mousy and out-of-date about the speech of roaring rhetoric of Henry V to his rag-taggle followers, to raise spirits and to go forth against a much larger army: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

Henry V’s speech could still be used to rally the troops. They still feel pointed, and relevant. Yet because Shakespeare is Shakespeare, his words and ideas escape the red pen of the brutal censor more than others do. “Centuries out of date”, the censors and government red-penners must think. “Can’t do any harm.”

So in some countries, Zimbabwe among them, Shakespeare is used to smuggle ideas of protest past those who veto that kind of thing. Playwright Elizabeth Zaza Muchemwa says in her country, where there are so many restrictions on theatre companies, Shakespeare appears to slip through the net, raising storylines of senility of a king (King Lear) and of overthrowing of a leader (Julius Caesar), which feel important to Zimbabwean citizens dealing with the long last days of an elderly ruler. Shakespeare’s writing continues to inspire, she says, in her piece.

But the badge of Shakespeare doesn’t always mean productions will escape the long reach of the law. In 1981, a Turkish production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream came to the stage as a military government stepped up its power. As Index’s Turkey editor Kaya Genç outlines in the magazine any public event, newspaper article, poem or artistic production carrying even the slightest trace of dissent against the military authority was certain to be punished. This production was felt to have highlighted the relationship between the elite and the rest (the rude mechanicals) and how status was used for power. Eight members of the cast ended up shaven-headed in prison in the next few months. The play did not squeeze by. It was noticed.

Leading Turkish theatre director Kemal Aydoğan, who produced the latest version of the play in Turkey, tells Index magazine that the Dream has a strong relevance to troubles in his nation today. He sees a parallel between the struggle between desire and the law, and the dream of the forest, a place where desire and equality dominates.

Don’t miss another gem in the latest magazine, Jan Fox’s long-form essay on the love/hate relationship the USA has, and has had, with Shakespeare (page 12). The Puritan founders felt all theatre was beyond the pale, and looked frowningly on its ribaldry. So this is a nation with a core of censorship at odds with its commitment to its First Amendment freedom of expression. LA-based Fox covers why Shakespeare still upsets parents because of its drama around everything from teenage suicide to under-age sex. “Shakespeare is telling us about our secret self and that’s what people are afraid of,” Gail Kern Paster, editor of the US-based journal Shakespeare Quarterly tells Fox.

While plays by established writers can smuggle through dissent and protest in countries with strict reins of performance exist, as nations move towards greater democracy then the public must expect and demand far more provocative, outrageous and openly challenging material from its theatre as well as welcoming the established gems. We should all look forward to the signs of those times.

Order your full-colour print copy of our Shakespeare magazine special here, or take out a digital subscription from anywhere in the world via Exact Editions (just £18* for the year). Each magazine sale helps Index on Censorship fight for free expression worldwide.

*Will be charged at local exchange rate outside the UK.

Magazines are also on sale in bookshops, including at the BFI and MagCulture in London as well as on Amazon and iTunes. MagCulture will ship to anywhere in the world.

Award-winning cartoonist discusses his design of the latest Index on Censorship magazine cover
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