Three things happened last year that prompted Offstage Theatre and Theatre Uncut to commission the series of short plays performed within ‘Walking the Tightrope’. The ‘human zoo’ show ‘Exhibit B’ from South African director Brett Bailey was shut down in London; the Tricycle theatre in London objected to the fact that the Jewish Film Festival - which takes place at the venue - was funded in part by the Israeli embassy and an Israeli hip hop musical was pulled from the Underbelly’s line-up.
The result is eight short plays that all explore up-to-the-minute issues with censorship in the arts. They cover everything from the idea that corporate sponsorship and private funding could lead to businesses and rich individuals getting a say in what writers write about, to the question of where we draw the line between art and exploitation.
By turns playful, complex and downright disturbing, this is a satisfyingly varied bunch of plays from an excellent selection of writers. Mark Ravenhill’s hilariously cynical ‘What Are We Going To Do About Harry’ has an artistic director being pressured to take on the privileged son of one of their funders as an intern. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s ‘Shampoo’ is a lightweight but nonetheless worryingly plausible view of the future, where a writer is forced to change swearwords in the play to adhere to political correctness.
Neil LaBute treads a new path of horrendous – in ‘Exhibit A’, a distinctly gratuitous work, an artist drugs a woman and rapes her onstage, challenging the audience to tell him it’s not art, and so therefore not OK. It is viscerally uncomfortable and doesn’t develop a point that is made in the first few seconds. Rather than shock factor, Caryl Churchill’s piece ‘Tickets Are Now On Sale’ relies on the subtleties of language to make her point, as a script about two people deciding to go for a walk is replayed, and their dialogue is replaced by words and phrases that reflect some of the worrying double standards of private and corporate arts funding.
The cast are a strong ensemble and the plays as a whole raise some pertinent, unsettling issues that should without doubt be being talked about at the moment. The plays offer no answers, but they do add to a growing conversation, and that can only be a good thing.