Should the Royal Court have cancelled Rita, Sue and Bob Too?

The planned London run of Andrea Dunbar’s play was cancelled after the Royal Court decided there was a conflict in staging the play

Gemma Dobson, Taj Atwal and James Atherton
Gemma Dobson, Taj Atwal and James Atherton
© Richard Davenport

The decision of the Royal Court not to stage the touring production of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita Sue and Bob Too seemed, when it was announced, entirely understandable. From the moment Vicky Featherstone took a valuable and important lead in countering the sexual harassment that has plagued the theatre industry, the arrival of the play on its stage early next year looked and felt peculiar.

How could a theatre that organised a day where 150 people shared their stories of sexual harassment and abuse then also present a play in which the teenage Rita and Sue are groomed by the married Bob and have sex with him? How was it possible for an artistic directorship that has drawn up a code which will protect workers from abuse within the theatre industry, then allow a production which was co-directed by Max Stafford Clark, a man who has left his job at Out of Joint because of allegations of inappropriate, sexualised behaviour?

The decision to cancel feels like a rare Royal Court misstep in the complicated world we find ourselves in

No wonder they felt that the staging of this play was "highly conflictual."

But as the days have passed, the decision to cancel feels like a rare Royal Court misstep in the complicated world we find ourselves in, post Harvey Weinstein, post #metoo, post every single story about harassment that makes every woman and many men look back on their own lives and analyse exactly what they have lived through.

In this context, there’s an argument that Rita Sue and Bob Too is precisely the play we should all be watching. It was written by a woman and based on her own experiences and struggle in the bleak, sexist and impoverished realities of Bradford in the 1980s. Stafford-Clark was responsible for bringing it to the stage then, and giving a working-class writer with a unique and important vision a chance to share her knowledge with a wide audience. After he stepped down, this particular production has been directed by a woman, Kate Wasserberg, and has been widely admired on its regional tour.

There is a terrible irony that a woman’s voice should be silenced by a man’s behaviour

There is a terrible irony, I feel, that Dunbar’s voice, a woman’s voice, should be silenced by a man’s behaviour. Which is effectively what has happened here. The play has always made me uneasy; it is a difficult and uncompromising piece. But that is what Dunbar intended. It was, as the executive producer of the subsequent film called it, "a report from the front line." Dunbar wanted us to look hard at these embattled lives and try to understand. Surely that is as important today as it ever was.

This is the thing that makes me most uneasy about the Royal Court’s decision. But I also think that in a broader context, it raises the hardest problem that we all have to face about reconciling the knowledge of people’s actions with the work that they have done.

I watched Baby Driver for a second time the other day. It is one of my films of the year, fantastically directed by Edgar Wright, full of pace and originality, with an extraordinary use of its score. And then, suddenly, there is Kevin Spacey, an actor I have always admired, giving a characteristically no-holds-barred performance as an exploitative crime boss.

When the film was made, Spacey was an Oscar-winner, a venerated and liked industry figure. Now his reputation is in ruins, as he faces multiple accusations of inappropriate behaviour towards young men. The director Ridley Scott could edit him out of his forthcoming film All the Money in the World, but what about all his previous work? What about my memories of his towering performances in The Iceman Cometh and Richard III? What do I do with them?

Is all Stafford-Clark's effort as a promoter of women’s work now undone by the knowledge of his behaviour?

It is the same with Stafford-Clark. Is all his effort as a promoter of women’s work and a sponsor of women playwrights including Dunbar and Caryl Churchill now undone by the knowledge of his behaviour? Does one side of his personality entirely define him?

History has already taught us that these things are far from simple. How much does a man’s behaviour impact on our view of his work? To take random writers, do Sartre and Simenon’s attitudes to women undermine their writing? Does the fact that Caravaggio was a murderer alter his art? And as for Shakespeare. Does his misogyny and racism invalidate his humanity and his compassion?

I don’t know the answer to any of the above and utterly share Featherstone’s sense that these things are conflicted and make us feel conflicted too. But I do believe that it is possible to hold two different thoughts in your head at one time, and that in reacting to our disgust and contempt for appalling, exploitative behaviour, we somehow have to allow for the good things these men have also done.

We have to be brave in all kinds of ways if we want to move forward, and that involves looking at things we don’t want to, as well as those we do.