30 Jan: Walking the Tightrope – the tension between art and politics


Presenting the world premiere of a collection of 12 explosive political five minute plays by writers including Mark Ravenhill, Neil LaBute and Caryl Churchill.

Arising from events and decisions relating to The Underbelly and Incubator Theatre’s The City, Exhibit B and the Barbican, and The Tricycle Theatre.

Each performance will include all twelve five minute plays and a lively post-show discussion exploring freedom of expression in UK arts today. Engage in discussion with the commissioned writers and a range of free expression advocates .

The post-show debate on on Friday 30th January will feature Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg.


WHERE: Theatre Delicatessen, London, EC1R 3ER
WHEN:  Monday 26th – Saturday 31st January,  7:30pm & Sat Matinee
TICKETS: £15 / £12 – available here


This event is produced by Offstage Theatre, in association with Theatre Uncut, and supported by Index on Censorship and Free Word.

Recap report: Is it ever better to censor than to cause offence?

(Photo: Melody Patry)

(Photo: Melody Patry)

Should there ever be censorship of the arts was the subject of an Index/Bush Theatre debate, held last night. The event was provoked by the cancellation of Exhibit B in London, and Israeli play The City at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe as well as controversy around this year’s Jewish Film Festival, all in the past few months.

Taking part in the debate were, among others: Stella Odunlami, artist and a cast member of Exhibit B; Zita Holbourne, artist, activist and co-organiser of the campaign to boycott the show; and Arik Eshet, artistic director of Incubator Theatre, which produced The City.

An Exhibit B performer Stella Odunlami told the audience: “We, a group of intelligent and informed actors and performers, have been censored and silenced by protestors, who truly have an ill-informed and misguided perspective of this significant and informative piece of work.

We are appalled, outraged, angry…extremely angry as artists, as human beings. We cannot believe that this is London in 2014. We are appalled that Exhibit B has been cancelled because of the actions of some of the demonstrators.”

Protester Zita Holbourne put her point of view as a poem, she said: “We said to them, Barbican please take that down, 2014 and you want to put black people in a cage? Then telling us you don’t understand our outrage!”

Read  their full statements, made to the audience, below.

Stella Odunlami read the statement from the London cast of Exhibit B

It is with utter disappointment that we write these words.

Exhibit B is an important work that has given us an education into the lives of other human beings. We believe everybody has the right to their specific story being told, and this work provided that platform, through the medium of art – living and breathing. It is a shame that these stories will no longer be heard, seen, nor felt. An even greater shame that those who were open and brave enough to purchase a ticket, have now been robbed of that experience.

Exhibit B afforded us the opportunity to explore and engage with our past, while reminding and reawakening us to its impact on the present.

To the 23,000 petitioners who complained that Exhibit B objectified human beings – you missed the point.

This is the 21st Century and we believe that everyone has a choice, a right, an entitlement, to do or say whatever they deem to be right for them. We can accept someone seeing the piece and not liking it-that’s fine. What we cannot accept about the events of Tuesday evening and the subsequent cancellation of Exhibit B, is the physical action that was taken outside of the Vaults, by a minority of the demonstrators who would not even entertain the thought of seeing the piece.

We, a group of intelligent and informed actors and performers, have been censored and silenced by protestors, who truly have an ill-informed and misguided perspective of this significant and informative piece of work.

We are appalled, outraged, angry…extremely angry as artists, as human beings. We cannot believe that this is London in 2014. We are appalled that Exhibit B has been cancelled because of the actions of some of the demonstrators.

We are artists who, after thoughtful and careful deliberation, decide what projects we want to work on. Grown men and women who decided that our contribution to Exhibit B would be worthwhile and important. Who, on Tuesday, were told, by way of the protestor’s force, that we couldn’t make creative and life decisions for ourselves.

That complete strangers knew what was best for us.

For all of us.

Our voices and ideas were deemed not worthy of being shared with the world. This is exactly what Exhibit B is about: we want to denounce oppression, racism and bigotry. We want to denounce actions like this. And the fact that this is still happening in London in 2014, proves even more why this piece is necessary.

The anger and vitriol and hysteria which the protestors have and continue to level at the company of Exhibit B, astounds us.

It doesn’t feel rational. It doesn’ t feel measured. There simply has not been room for an exchange of ideas.

There’s such vulnerability in holding a mirror up to humanity. No one wants to see a representation of themselves oppressed, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look.

We welcome protest, but surely it’s best to have as much information beforehand, so your opinion is truly informed. Surely as a protestor, you have a duty to ensure your ‘peaceful protest’ really is peaceful. And, surely your right to protest should not impact another person’s freedom of thought and speech.

We are actors and performers who believe that art should be meaningful. Challenging. Provoking.

Not only for us, as participating collaborators in the work, but also for the audience who witness the work.

This project afforded us the opportunity to be the most vulnerable, most on display, silently engaging and being engaged, while exploring themes around other, sex, race, and gender.

Exhibit B was created with love and sensitivity. We are intelligent creatives who made a brave choice to be part of a thought provoking piece of work. As Londoners, we are embarrassed that this has happened in our city, as the show has already been seen by 25,000 people from all over the world, and will continue to tour.

We would like to thank the Barbican for their immense support and Brett Bailey for his inspired work.

Zita Holbourne read Prejudice, Privilege, Power: A Poem for the Barbican (listen to it here)

Barbican announced a human zoo in town
We said to them, Barbican please take that down
2014 and you want to put black people in a cage?
Then telling us you don’t understand our outrage!

Strapped to plane seats, placed in iron masks
And nobody in a whole arts institution thought to ask
Our views before taking a decision to host
Then you have the bare faced audacity to boast

That you’ve placed black people in a human zoo
Going around talking about the good it can do
In challenging racist attitudes and views
But to listen to our concerns you refuse

Shackles and cages at £20 per ticket
But you don’t get why we organised a picket
We don’t need to see a black woman shackled to a bed
To know that racism is rearing its ugly head

We’re forced to battle daily with modern day enslavement
Power and privilege versus our self-empowerment
You are arrogant telling those of us that live with racism every day
What is or is not racist, like we don’t have a say

Let’s make clear that a boycott campaign is not censorship
For your actions and failures you must take ownership
We don’t need a lecture on what it is to be banned
We’re treated like third class citizens in this land

Blocked by institutions, so take a moment, pause
Think about the anger and pain you cause
By insulting our ancestors, our histories
Adding insult to our multiple injuries

If anything is censored it’s the art we produce
Rejected repeatedly by art institutions that refuse
To acknowledge our stories told by us through art
We’ve never had a level playing field from the start

We have a legitimate right to protest
It’s disingenuous of you to suggest
That our demonstration was aggressive
When it was simply passionate and expressive

Using the very arts that you claim to stand for
To demonstrate our strength of feeling outside the door
We made music, danced, lifted our voices in song
Displayed placards that had our beautiful art on

Yet you state that we were extreme and threatening
In contrast, press there say we were peaceful and welcoming
Police confirm there was no damage, injury or arrest
So perhaps it’s you trying to censor our right to protest

Their singing was threatening is what the headlines say
Brandishing placards and drums that barred the way
You accuse us of blocking freedom of expression
But then you call our expression aggression!

What does this say about you as a leading arts institution?
When you resort to this vicious persecution
Barbican you are cowardly and insincere
Resorting to this malicious smear

You simply confirm what we said from the start
You are defending racism in the name of art
When prejudice, privilege and power are combined
Institutional racism becomes clearly defined.

Arik Eshet, Artistic Director of Incubator Theatre, spoke via Skype about the cancellation of The City at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

The Index/Bush Theatre debate was part of the RADAR Festival.

This article was posted on 14 November 2014 at indexoncensorship.org

13 Nov: Is it ever better to censor than to cause offence?

Exhibit B (Photo: © Sofie Knijff / Barbican)

Exhibit B (Photo: © Sofie Knijff / Barbican)

Exhibit B, The City, the Tricycle Theatre… Several high profile cases this past summer have ignited a debate about artistic censorship in the UK.

Join us as part of RADAR Festival at the Bush Theatre in London to explore the rights of the artist to free expression, to examine the role of arts institutions in defending and promoting free expression, and to ask the question: is it ever better to censor than to cause offence? The event features:

WHERE: Bush Theatre, London, W12 8LJ
WHEN: Thursday 13 November 2014, debate 9.00-10.00pm (following show 7.30-8.30pm)
TICKETS: £10 (early bird, including show) at www.bushtheatre.co.uk or 0208 743 5050 (box office)

Follow the discussion via the hashtag #RADAR2014

Co-produced by Index on Censorship and the Bush Theatre as part of the RADAR Festival.

Padraig Reidy: What is the alternative to boycott?

First, the inevitable throat clearing and hand wringing. The most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas has been beyond horrendous. As I type, the ceasefire is holding. Over 1,800 Palestinians have lost their lives, more than 300 of them children. Dozens of Israelis, mostly young conscript soldiers, are also dead. There is an enormous imbalance, in firepower and in defensive capability. Better men than I have gone mad attempting to imagine a way to stop this happening again. Even that statement, I realise, reads like a cop out, but a particular sense of despair looms over this latest manifestation of a war that is only ever dormant at best.

Some clearly feel that the horror has gone too far. Author Hari Kunzru, for example, has decided to join calls for a cultural boycott of Israel. Writing on his Facebook wall, Kunzru cited an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post which suggested the “dismantling” of Gaza and the “relocation” of its non-humanitarian population. Kunzru also cited “”the targeting of schools and hospitals, the picture of a child my son’s age being dug out of rubble that reduced me to helpless tears, the total disregard of the Netanyahu government for international laws and norms…”  as signs that Israel was a country that had “lost its moral compass”.

This is notable not because Hari is a well-known figure in the arts world – there are enough of those willing to sign up to any cause that comes along, and more than enough already willing to tell us exactly what they think about Israel/Palestine, or Cuba, or any other issue to which sections of the left are drawn to, like particularly verbose moths to the flames of revolution, or, worse, the great unspecified “resistance”.

No, this is notable exactly because Hari Kunzru is not one of those people. Hari is thoughtful and unshowy. And Hari has actually put in real work for free speech. I recall, in 2012, scrabbling to find a local sympathetic lawyer who would represent Hari when he faced serious risk of prosecution for reading from the Satanic Verses at the Jaipur Literary Festival, in solidarity with Salman Rushdie. He has made himself available for organisations such as Index and English PEN well beyond the call of duty. So when someone such as Hari Kunzru identifies with a cultural boycott, it means we have to take the question seriously.

The concept of boycotts, and particularly cultural and academic boycotts, have for a long time been problematic for people engaged in the promotion of free expression. Most criticisms of censorship are based on a fundamental assumption that communication of ideas is, in and of itself, a good thing. Some vague belief abounds based loosely on the Hegelian triad of thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

This can sometimes sound naive, but it  does lead to useful perspectives on any argument: 1) that there are entirely sincere, well-meaning people, who may hold views completely anathema to your own, and 2) following from that, in formulating any position on proscription of certain attitudes or beliefs, or people, one must imagine being on the wrong end of the argument – a kind of categorical imperative crossed with the “golden rule”, that can end up making the certainty of others unsettling.

Boycotters often carry that absolutism and conviction that brooks no argument: a simple righteousness anchored in the belief that their view of the world is so self-evidently correct that anyone who is unconvinced by them is either deviant or deficient.

Then there is always the question of who benefits from boycotts? And who is hurt? The traditional, free expression view on cultural boycotts is that they punish precisely the people who are most outward looking and also most likely to seek change in their own countries. Is it fair to punish the artists for the actions of the government, as we have seen with the cancellation of Israeli show The City at the Edinburgh Festival following protests by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign? Or to request that the UK Jewish Film Festival should ditch Israeli government funding before it can use a venue, as Kliburn’s Tricycle Theatre has, in the name, it says, of attempting to depoliticise the event?

It is argued that theatre companies, dance troupes etc are legitimate targets for boycott if they benefit from state funding, but in truth, there is hardly a theatre company in the civilised world that does not take funding from government agencies: indeed, most western liberals see state agency funding of arts as a sign, even a crucial part, of a healthy democracy, and it is rare that state-funded companies engage in Red-Army Choir style propaganda tours – though Venezuela’s Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, decked out in baseball jackets in the colours of the national flag, can sometimes feel a little too Potemkin for comfort.

Writing on the subject (£) of anti-Israel boycotts back in 2012, Irish Times literary editor Fintan O’Toole drafted these five rules for artists and writers invited to perform in countries with dubious records:

1) Don’t take money, directly or indirectly, from governments that systematically abuse human rights, or from oligarchs who benefit from those abuses.

2) Give a significant part of your fee to human-rights defenders or oppressed artists in the relevant country.

3) Don’t accept any restrictions on your own freedom of expression when you’re in that country.

4) Don’t perform to audiences forcibly segregated on lines of race, gender or ethnicity.

5) Don’t let yourself be used for propaganda purposes.

This was very much the approach used by Sweden’s Loreen during and after the Eurovision Song Contest hosted by Azerbaijan in 2012. The singer made efforts to meet opposition figures and voice their concerns in press conferences and TV interviews, and was widely praised for it.

In fact, O’Toole’s rules are not a million miles from the boycott pledge signed by Hari Kunzru, which states: “We support the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality. In response to the call from Palestinian artists and cultural workers for a cultural boycott of Israel, we pledge to accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding from any institution linked to its government until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.”, though there is a crucial difference in that the boycott statement punishes both state and non-state entities, thus preventing signatories from accepting invitations from, say, a hypothetical human rights group.

And this is the problem I will continue to have with boycotts against nations, particularly nations’ cultural endeavours. They seem too blunt, too broad and flawed. Even the much-cited cultural boycott against South African apartheid went awry, with the bizarre irony of Paul Simon being criticised for technically breaking the boycott by travelling to the country to work with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the black acapella singing group that was far from a friend of the regime.

But the problem is that for many seeking to register their disgust at the actions of foreign governments, boycott seems the only option. Perhaps it’s time for those of us uncomfortable with the idea of shutting down free speech to figure out new avenues of expression.

This column was posted on August 7, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org