The Hope Theatre
In an age of social media, the censor in Anthony Neilson’s 1997 play seems like a figure from a distant past. Yet films still get classified and distributed according to a rating, its producers doing what they can to promote it. And the freedom of the Internet is constantly being threatened.
The Censor imagines an intense encounter between Miss Fontaine, the director of a film at risk of being banned, and the official (Jonathan McGarrity) tasked with the decision on its future. In trying to persuade him of its worth, she also makes a case for a more liberal approach to sexual expression.
The story is told by the censor, who says Miss Fontaine (Suzy Whitefield) “came to change my mind the only way she knows how.” And that is by taking her top off, propositioning him and, without consent, putting her hand down his trousers to masturbate him.
She claims to be able to tell a good deal about a person, by watching them being sexual or by having sex with them. That includes whether a man’s last girlfriend was Asian and, in the censor’s case, that his responsiveness is dependent on visual rather than tactile stimuli. It doesn’t take her too long to work out and enact his secret fetish to arouse him.
As she argues for a different approach to sexuality, she says the future will be different, shame will not exist, sexuality will be separated from reproduction and the “people we call perverts will be regarded as visionaries.”
That last bit should give a bit of hope to all those senior managers being forced to resign by #MeToo.
But the rest of us are unlikely to be persuaded by the sexual antics of Miss Fontaine or the peculiar arguments of the censor, who claims “without censorship there will be no metaphor”.
The cast of three give clear, confident performances, with Jonathan McGarrity conveying well the physical awkwardness of the censor who is never quite comfortable in his own skin.
But the play’s aspirations to challenge repressive attitudes to sex never quite work. The characters are never more than types with the censor’s wife (Chandrika Chevli) functioning as a simple illustration of an absence in his life and the mysterious Miss Fontaine embodying that old style femme fatale promise to a man of a dangerous freedom from convention.
Attitudes to sexuality aren’t simply a product of some puritan past clashing with some liberated future. They are shaped by institutional inequalities of race, class and gender.
Perhaps that is why Miss Fontaine bizarrely implies racial stereotypes of Asian women.
It’s certainly why Judge Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure can abuse and sexually threaten the nun Isabella, before telling her he has no fear of her complaints because “my place in the state will so your accusations overweigh that you shall stifle in your own report.”
Anthony Neilson’s play can be entertaining, disconcerting and provocative, all to the purpose of making a point about the repression of sexuality, but the point is limited and draws on stereotypes that are more to do with social divisions than sexuality.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna