Why the Royal Court is right to reinstate Rita, Sue and Bob Too

Should Andrea Dunbar, a working-class playwright, really be silenced because of the misbehaviour of her mentor?

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Censorship in British theatre was abolished after the staging of Edward Bond’s Saved at London’s Royal Court in 1968. Lord Chamberlain’s office insisted on severe cuts to the script, including a scene that featured the stoning to death of a baby. After a public outcry and a court challenge, the censorship office caved, the Royal Court’s actions were a victory that defined the freedom that endures today.

This week the artistic director of the Royal Court, Vicky Featherstone, announced that the production of late writer Andrea Dunbar’s play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, was to be axed partly due to its themes of grooming and sexual violence, which were “conflictual” with the recent code of conduct established by the Court. The move followed a series of allegations against the former artistic director (and dramaturg of Dunbar’s play) Max Stafford-Clark. His involvement with the current production ceased when he was asked to step down from his role as co-director, and was replaced by Kate Wasserberg in September. (Stafford-Clark’s spokesperson told The Guardian he had suffered from “occasional disinhibition” since a stroke and brain injury in 2006.)

Following the Court’s statement, a public backlash gathered momentum from different ends of the political spectrum and resulted in a rapid U-turn on the decision. Featherstone said she had been “rocked to the core” by accusations of censorship. Online commentators were unanimous in their support for the play, and quick to note that a young working-class woman should not be silenced because of the past actions of an older man who occupied a more privileged position.

Clearly underestimating the strength of feeling towards her, this change of heart represents a triumph for Andrea Dunbar, who cannot defend herself. She died in 1990, aged 29, from a brain haemorrhage, just twelve days after completing her final work, a sequel to Rita, Sue and Bob Too.

Once described by the Mail on Sunday as “a genius straight from the slums”, Dunbar grew up on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford. Her plays reflected the harsh reality of life in the Thatcher era, and she was the youngest person in the history of the Court to have her work staged there. Her second play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, was based on personal experience - the places where she grew up, the people she knew. This story of two ribald teenage babysitters and their relationship with a married man (the pathetic Bob) gained notoriety due to its outrageous opening scene of both girls taking turns to have sex with Bob in the back of his car.

Its place was cemented into popular culture through Alan Clarke’s adaptation for the big screen in 1987. By then, it had attracted the ire of the right-wing press, some of whom mistook it for satire. Writing in The Spectator, Hilary Mantel commented that Rita and Sue were “desperate and pathetic: a hopeless pair of greasy-faced witches, with no virtue in their shrieking camaraderie”.

This warts-and-all version of working-class life in West Riding remains as potent in 2017 as it was in the 1980s. Some scenes certainly still make for awkward viewing in these post-Savile times, yet we must remember that Dunbar did not consider herself to be a victim. Here was a dramatised version of her relationships, and the play was primarily concerned with the enduring strength of female friendship. The screenplay (also written by Dunbar), amalgamated scenes from her first play, The Arbor, which focused on Rita and Sue, and saw the character of Bob stripped of all bravado in the closing scenes. But it was the director Alan Clarke who made the decision to give the film a comedic ending, in which Bob (played in convincing sleazy fashion by George Costigan) ends up in bed with both girls. Dunbar was furious with the change, believing that it belittled her characters, who would never return to a man who had behaved in such a way.

Discovered via a women’s aid refuge in Keighley in 1979, Dunbar’s scripts were first sent to Stafford-Clark who immediately recognised her potential. She was a stubborn writer, perhaps one of the most exasperating at the Court, and with no formal training was often forced into writing by being locked in a room with a four-pack of beer. As a single mother of three, writing wasn’t always a priority for her, yet it was the Court which nurtured her talent. This makes it all the more puzzling that Stafford-Clark’s actions should be a reason to censor her in 2017. Are the Court’s audiences metropolitan milquetoasts, unable to stomach the vulgar realities of life? By trying too hard not to offend, the theatre risks making itself irrelevant in the process.

When the play was first staged, audience members either walked out in protest or howled with laughter. Dunbar remarked to Stafford-Clark, “What are they all laughing at? It weren’t that funny when it were happening.” Yet it was the appeal of her dialogue, which captured a bleak-black Yorkshire wit, that solidified her reputation as one of the most original writers of her generation.

Theatre is an arena in which the very worst of human behaviour can be portrayed, but by staging challenging drama it does not mean that the theatre endorses or promotes the actions of its characters. It shouldn’t be a safe space, with trigger warnings. The darkest scenes, from Greek tragedy to Hamlet, display situations which have horrified audiences for thousands of years. Are these now also unpalatable for contemporary viewers? Art should make us feel uncomfortable. That is its duty.

Undoubtedly, the revelations about Stafford-Clark’s behaviour (going back decades) should result in a code of conduct against predatory behaviour. This is absolutely necessary. The history of the play’s evolution, which included naked rehearsals in 1982, is somewhat contentious, and the Court has been torn apart over the recent revelations. But there is an hypocrisy here. By cancelling a production by a writer who was born and raised at the Court, the institution was self-censoring, a move at odds with everything the theatre originally stood for.

Either way, the fierce public support and enduring appeal of Andrea Dunbar has been underestimated. She is a hero of northern drama whose work is widely adored, and is rapidly assuming the status of national treasure. It takes great strength to admit a wrong decision, and the backtrack on this week’s misguided cancellation is proof that Dunbar’s work is still relevant today. Her difficult truths remain. We need her now, more than ever.

Adelle Stripe’s new book about Andrea Dunbar, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, is published by Fleet.