I saw Rita, Sue and Bob Too at the Oxford Playhouse. It was about a week after the news broke that Max Stafford-Clark had left Out of Joint because of formal complaints of sexual harassment. Because of this I was not particularly looking forward to the play but I thought I should go along because I’d already booked a ticket and it was by a woman. I had only had the most cursory Wikipedia of its plot: two fifteen year olds are in a relationship with a married man.
I am sitting in a half empty theatre watching the first scene of Rita, Sue and Bob Too. I feel sick. Onstage, a man asks the two girls in the back of his car whether they know what a johnny is, whether they know how to put one on. The girls are all teenage bluster and innocent knowingness. They’ll have a go. An extended sex scene. What gets me most is the humour of it, the mundanity and the awkwardness of the positioning in the front of the car. I want to cry. My legs itch to walk out. I feel complicit. I worry that in my feeling of complicity I am exceptional in this audience, this audience that I can hear laughing at this scene in which an older man has coerced two teenage girls into having sex with him. This is not something to laugh at. I will not permit myself to laugh. I judge those who laugh as not taking the abuse seriously, not condemning it as abuse.
When I watch the performance (and because there are no printed materials to tell me to the contrary), I believe it to be directed by Max Stafford-Clark (rather than Kate Wasserberg, who took over after his resignation). I can’t get him out of my head. I wonder how his presence shaped the first production. Did he ask Dunbar graphic questions about her experiences, on which the play is based? How did he ask the actresses to rehearse the sex scenes?
After the show, I took to Twitter to try to untangle my feelings, in search of others who felt the same rage and helplessness as me. I tweeted:
Kate Wasserberg replied. (She seems to have subsequently deleted her tweets, so I can’t provide an exact quote). She told me that she directed the production, not Max. She said she had thought very hard about how to direct that scene. She was sorry I felt that the production had not got it right.
In my tweets, I struggled to separate my urge to rescue Andrea Dunbar as a woman writer, even a potentially feminist writer, from what I saw as direction that stifled that feminist potential: the critique of gendered structures of power, of economic systems that made getting pregnant an escape option. Knowing it was directed by a female director and not Max Stafford-Clark made me question my diagnosis. Maybe what I was seeing in the play as a feminist spectator was inherent in the production itself and brought out by the direction, rather than seeing myself as reading against the grain amongst an audience laughing at the sexual abuse of children.
But my original affective response – of discomfort, upset, rage – still stands. I think my response was so raw because I was unsure of the intention behind the production. I didn’t know if the production intended to elicit the feelings I felt; my response seemed to exceed the production in some way. I would have felt safer if I knew when I watched it that the stance behind the production was a condemnation of the abuse of women by men. It seems obvious. But I wanted and I felt like there needed to be an explicit statement that what was occurring onstage was not OK. I know that discomfort can be a powerful tool in theatre. But the lack of context and framing translated into a lack of care for the audience. I hope that, if Rita, Sue and Bob Too is shown at the Royal Court, it will be within an adequate contextualising framework of post-show talks and discussions, programme notes, criticism. But my discomfort remains.