Many taboos in theatre seem to have been overcome. Plays that are politically radical, ardently feminist; those which explore themes like racism and class are now more common – or at least not viewed in the same disdain they once were. No one walks out during a production of Pygmalion or over the brutal violence explicitly portrayed in many Shakespeare productions anymore. But some things still provoke angry audience reactions; sex, whilst no longer taboo, must still be moderated to our tastes.
Sex in itself has never been estranged from theatre. But people are now more content with occasional nudity and innuendo, because sex is such a key element in so much drama. In that sense, we have definitely moved on from it being taboo. The world of moralistic Victorian theatre, where anything even vaguely sexual had to occur offstage, is now completely alien to a modern audience. We have been liberated.
But sex still seems to be something that, although discussed in theatre, can be overdone. Yes, audiences seem happy to watch plays exploring ever more challenging themes, such as rape, bondage or gay sex. But once that passes a certain level, audience discomfort mounts. A recent production of Abi Morgan’s The Mistress Contract provoked mass walkouts during passages that discussed, at length, the act of fellatio. These days, a play that mentions fellatio would not have caused angst. But the continuation and basis of a long play on that topic does seem to still be too much for prudish Britons.
Perhaps prudish is too strong a word; this is most likely the last controversy on stage today. It is more down to audiences just not being that sex obsessed, rather than a desire to cover up offensive images. The Edinburgh Fringe, long a centre for progressive plays, was criticised last year in The Independent for showing too much rape and sex on stage. But concerns seemed to be less over plays that used sex as a device and more about plays whose sole focus was sexually explicit scenes. Yael Farber’s Nirbhaya, although brave and liberating in its portrayal of sexual abuse was, at the end of the day, a ninety minute production solely about violent sexual exploitation. Is that really something modern audiences want to pay money to go and see?
One of the most historically famous and outrageous sexually scandalous plays was Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain. Here was a play that, for one scene of simulated male rape, caused nationwide fury and a profanity lawsuit in the Old Bailey. That was in 1980. The play was restaged in 2006, with no prevalent negative reaction. But The Romans in Britain was not a play about sex. The male rape, though horrific, was part of a plot line, and was done to prove a point. It was an anti-Imperialist play, and a play about power, not a sexual play.
That is the key; one act in an hour or two of theatre is not controversial or taboo anymore. People are largely content to watch sex on stage. But audiences do not seem as happy to watch modern ‘taboo’ plays – ones which are constant, full on, sexual extravaganzas. Theatre today can discuss practically anything, and explore a multitude of previously taboo subjects in a very liberating way, including sex. But perhaps we’ve just reached our limit with graphic, aggressive, superfluous sex.