Yesterday Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw won Best Director and Best Actress at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, for their production of Medea.
Medea is not an easy play – this is a woman who kills her own children, something men do, and women don’t. In this territory we are closer to Myra Hindley and Rosemary West, even without the blood tie, and it is difficult for us to feel any sympathy for such a woman. Hindley’s relationship with Ian Brady may be something that Lord Longford understands, but most people just want to keep her in prison.
Deborah Warner is fascinated by violent death on stage. Her career at the RSC began with Titus Andronicus in 1987 and her first collaboration with Fiona Shaw, was Electra in 1989. Since then their work together has included Hedda Gabler and Richard the Second, with Shaw cross-dressed in the title role.
Darkness and ugliness are difficult on stage. While film is often more brutal, it is also more remote; theatre engages because it is live, there is a risk and a contact not present on screen. It is this risk and contact that Warner and Shaw have made their own. I go to the theatre so that I can begin to understand what is outside my imagination. When I saw Medea, I understood why a woman would kill her children – and I felt pity for her. More frighteningly, I felt connection.
Violence, especially violence around love and sex, is no newer than we are, though we think about it differently according to our time. Mary Whitehouse, dead at last at 91, made sex and violence into her personal crusade. It is probably thanks to her, that the two words go together as easily as love and marriage used to do. We can only hope that her baleful influence will now begin to wane. I should like to see a lot more sex on TV, and a lot less violence. Why was she able to distort the debate so successfully?
When you think about sex, do you immediately think about violence? When you see someone being beaten or murdered, do you associate the act with lovemaking?
When theatre uses sex and violence, as Shakespeare does in Measure for Measure, or Osborne in Look Back in Anger, or Joe Orton in any of his plays, or Warner in Medea, the coupling is purposeful – it helps us to think about who we are. Censorship the Whitehouse way, had no purpose other than to stop us thinking about who we are. What she and her KGB-like Viewers And Listeners Association achieved was not a clean up of the media, but a pornographic obsession with it. There she was, night after night, in her oversize comedy glasses, spotting bums while the rest of us were innocently sitting on ours.
But she was not a figure of fun. Linking sex and violence in the public mind is a pathology. Feminism has long argued that rape is not the confusion of sex and violence; it is not sex at all. Rape is power. Most men do not want to rape women. Most men do not feel violently towards women, nor is their sex drive wrapped in brutality. Sex and violence are not equivalents. When the two things get confused, the results are disastrous.
Mary Whitehouse confused them all the time. Her de Sade-like focus on pain/pleasure normalised sex and violence. Here was an elderly lady in an S& M, sorry M&S, outfit, talking about sex and violence as if they were the same thing.
My own run-in with her happened when Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was televised on BBC2. As everybody knew it was going to show sex between women, why did she watch it? She could have gone to bed with a video of Songs of Praise. But no, she gallantly stayed the course through three episodes and wrote to me, (eight pages), as well the BBC and several newspapers.
Last week, Charlotte Coleman died at 33. She played the character Jess, in Oranges, loosely based on myself, and her performance brought her a huge mailbag from people who felt liberated by what she had done. Ten years later there are plenty of gay characters on TV, but in 1990, it was not so, and what we did was to open up some imaginative space.
Mary Whitehouse in her long life never liberated anybody. Charlotte Coleman, in her too short life, was a free spirit whose acting freed others.
I don’t know what any of us are here for, but surely it might be to add our light to the sum of light?
Deborah Warner, Fiona Shaw, Charlotte Coleman are lights in the territory. There is enough darkness in the world – today’s column is in praise of light.
Guardian Newspapers Tuesday November 13, 2001