Not for sensitive viewers


Not for sensitive viewers

Actor Ian McKellen recently dismissed trigger warnings as ridiculous in an interview with The Guardian. And Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan said sterilising fiction that might offend readers is a form of mass hysteria.


I REMEMBER it like yesterday: PW Botha's wagging finger condemning the people; NG Church ministers preaching from their lofty pulpits that God is love while excluding black and brown people from their churches; the banning of books such as Kennis van die aand by André P Brink and  the play Selle ou storie by Pieter-Dirk Uys.

It was everywhere, a feeling that you had to be careful not to cause offence, that you had to count your words and keep your thoughts to yourself. Some would say that suffocating atmosphere is repeating itself.

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A state of emergency was declared on July 21 1985, and it was during these times that, ironically, I saw theatre and art that expanded my worldview.

John Kani kissing Sandra Prinsloo in the play Miss Julie at the Baxter. I was there on the opening night. The security police with their nicotine-stained moustaches too.

When the moment arrived, large portions of the audience gasped; many got up and walked out. The police had to escort Prinsloo and Kani to their cars from that night on.

They received death threats and it was front-page news. After all, that's the role of theatre and art: it should hit you in the gut unexpectedly. So hard that you'll remember it decades later.

I also remember in those days Athol Fugard's “Master Harold"... and the boys. In one scene, entirely unexpected, the much younger Master Harold spits in the face of “boy" John Kani. The humiliation on his face left a hollow feeling in your stomach.

Yes, it was so dreadful that the audience froze. Kani and the young man stood still, probably for a minute, before the dialogue continued. At that moment, the white audience knew what black people in this country had to go through. Diminishment. One spit was all it took.

There were no trigger warnings.


In the art world, things also became wild. Exhibitions were filled with challenging art. In the 1980s, Louis Jansen van Vuuren had a controversial exhibition at the Association for Visual Arts in Cape Town.

One prominent work was a painting of a pig's head with an old South African Police cap on it. One day, a policeman walked in and insisted the painting be removed.

The gallery and Louis refused. The next day, that was also front-page news. Free publicity for the gallery and the artwork.


This brings us to the two Ians, an actor and a writer. Both have spoken with The Guardian.

When a London theatre in its latest production decided to warn audiences about grief and death, the play's star didn't keep quiet.

“I think it's ridiculous," Ian McKellen said. “I like to be surprised, especially by loud sounds and extreme behaviour on stage."

He was referring to Frank and Percy, a play about two retired men who meet on Hampstead Heath. It opened earlier this month at the Other Palace theatre with McKellen and Roger Allam.

Many actors argue that the impact of art and literature is precisely to shock or make people uncomfortable; it's an integral part of new experiences. Warnings reduce or remove the element of surprise and the exploration of unknown or repressed emotions.

The Guardian writes: “Earlier this year, the Chichester Festival Theatre issued a warning about the content of its production of The Sound of Music. The story, beloved for its songs about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, has a dark undercurrent about Nazism. On its website, the … theatre said this musical contains themes of ‘music; family life; romance; the rise of Nazi Germany and the annexation of Austria'. Some people might find the latter disturbing, it warned."

The Globe Theatre has cautioned audiences about themes in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (suicide and drug use), A Midsummer Night's Dream (violence, sexual references, misogyny and racism) and The Merchant of Venice (anti-Semitism).

Critics, however, believe the theatre is not a pulpit but a gymnasium for the imagination. A survey of British students last year found that 86% agreed that content warnings (another term for trigger warnings) should sometimes or always be used on established texts, with only 14% opposed to the idea.

One wonders what they would have made of Marthinus Basson's controversial Anatomy Titus/fall of Rome, also in the 1980s, which was performed in the Arena, the small theatre to the left of the old Nico Malan Theatre.

Buckets of blood were thrown on the stage; people screamed; if I remember correctly, prosthetic limbs were thrown around; it was so wild that people ran out. It was like a war on a stage, with connections to contemporary events in the politics of the country.

In London today, it would probably have to be performed underground or on the fringe. Otherwise, with a Valium and a trigger warning as thick as the old Yellow Pages.


The writer Ian McEwan has once again expressed his opposition to over- sensitivity. The Booker Prize-winning novelist has criticised the practice of hiring someone to read a manuscript before its publication to identify potential points that might be offensive to readers.

“These mass hysterias, moral panics, sweep through populations every now and then. And I think this is one of them," he told The Guardian. “You’ve got to write what you feel. You must tell the truth."

However, McEwan is not a conservative curmudgeon. In 2020, he supported students who tore down the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. “Demanding a little more accounting of our colonial imperial past is a perfectly good demand,” he said. “But saying we can’t read Nabokov or Conrad, or whatever, seems beyond contempt.”



What do our theatre people say?

Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, a composer, writer, musical director and filmmaker, says: “Goodness. What a conundrum. [We have a] responsibility towards an audience regarding things like strobe effects that could indeed trigger a seizure, or loud explosions and the like. But I unfortunately agree that the rest is going too far.

“Nothing prevents a highly sensitive individual from checking Wikipedia to see how ‘triggering' The Sound of Music might be. Or they can even contact a theatre's management to get such information. We are regularly contacted by theatregoers who want to assess the suitability of a production for their children.

“I personally want to experience a theatre production with an open mind. I think it is precisely part of our humanity to be swept away by the beauty of Rodgers and Hammerstein's melodies in The Sound of Music before we are abruptly brought back to the reality of intolerance in Europe during the 1930s.

“It makes you think, talk and do research. It leads to opinions based on humanity, not just preconceived ideas. The more I am warned about the controversial content of a production, the more opportunity I have to curate my reaction and the less chance I have to be genuinely surprised.

“But I say all this knowing that there are exceptions to the rule. Perhaps theatres should offer an online service in the future where those who wish can obtain information about any triggers."


Pieter-Dirk Uys has been creating his own work for many decades. He says: “It's only in a production about the assassination of John F Kennedy where there's a trigger warning in the title! Why warn the audience about anything except the precise time when the curtain goes up? Even with age restrictions, I warn people: no one between the ages of five and 89 without a sense of humour.

“The magic of theatre is that you don't know what lies ahead. The joy comes after a performance where you are stunned by horror and awe. Those trigger warnings always put me off."


The award-winning writer and director Philip Rademeyer (director of works including Soebatsfontein with Sandra Prinsloo and the late Franci Swanepoel), says: “I don't think trigger warnings should be used unnecessarily and casually, but they may be necessary in some cases. I believe theatre should not only entertain audiences but also make them think about difficult issues.

“This implies that audiences are often confronted with difficult and sensitive topics, and I think this awareness is part of the understanding between theatre makers and the audience.

“Plays do have a synopsis and age restrictions in the programme from which one can make deductions, but I believe in some cases, a trigger warning can provide the audience with more information.

“My production, Goed wat wag om te gebeur, carries a warning for gender-based violence. This is the first time I've used an additional warning for one of my plays, and we decided on this because the play does not shy away from the horrors of violence, and this type of violence can be very traumatic for people."


Sylvaine Strike, actor, writer and director,  recently known for her work on The Promise, says: “I am on Ian McKellen's side. The purpose of theatre is to be provocative. People attending the theatre also expect this. Triggers are part of our daily life and existence.

“The difference with theatre is that you are in a safe space where we collectively witness something together. Although we may feel triggered, we came to watch a play to feel something.

“That being said, we should warn people about violence, nudity and explicit language, especially when children are involved. But when adults attend something, they should be prepared for challenges because that's what art is all about."


So, are trigger warnings in theatre and sensitivity readers for fiction a form of censorship, or a sign of progress? This is a decision that each one must make for themselves.

Here is a short YouTube interview with two Americans who have entirely opposing views on trigger warnings:

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