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Paddy O’Connell, the ubiquitous presenter of BBC radio programmes from R2 DJ-ing to R4 News is one of my broadcasting heroes.  There is something genuine about him that makes its way through the sound waves and seems to come straight from the heart.  But this morning he made me jump off my pillow and nearly spill my tea in alarm when he stated – relating to the Vice-President-Elect Pence’s visit to the theatre and his being booed and called to account by the cast – that ‘Theatre should be a safe place’ – I think he was quoting rather than opining – I hope he was quoting rather than opining – because theatre has never been a safe place.  Theatre, with its live performances that change every night, has always been somewhere anything can happen, anything can be said and where – of all the arts – it requires courage – the playwright’s courage and the performers’ courage to speak out.  

Our theatre is firmly rooted in the Greeks, and Oh Boy those Greeks were not averse to stirring up trouble on the stage and pointing the finger at their leaders.  Aristophanes, the Father of Comedy, never held back.  Anyone who has seen one of the Satyr plays (squashed in between comedy and tragedy – and as vulgar and anti-politician as you could wish) will know that the theatre was never designed to show so-called good manners.  Here’s what Aristophanes thought of politicians:  ‘You have all the characteristics of a popular politician: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner’  or, just as scathing,  ‘Under every stone lurks a politician.’   

Then there was Sophocles, master of tragedy… ‘Time alone reveals the just man; but you might discern a bad man in a single day.’
And the brilliant Aeschylus – in Prometheus Bound ‘Words are the physicians of a mind diseased.’ and – from a fragment of a play of his now lost (more is the pity) ‘Verily a prosperous fool is a heavy load…’  Robert Kennedy quoted Aeschylus in his speech given the night of Martin Luther’s murder – just think how remarkable it is that – after 5000 years – the words of the playwrights, given through the mouths of the actors, are still working for us and against the bad without grace or favour.  The theatre has always spoken out, and will always speak out.  The marvel of it is that now there are mobile phones that can record what happens upon that fleeting stage, instead of it just being reported afterwards.  I hope that won’t inhibit the theatre’s courage in future.
So Vice-President-Elect Pence must take the flak that our brave and free theatre dishes out to him.  There is nothing that requires conduct to be polite in theatre – quite the reverse.  In recent times, and from the tub-thumping scorn of John Osborne ‘I never deliberately set out to shock, but when people don’t walk out of my plays I think there is something wrong…’  – to the mischieviousy subversive Alan Bennett  ‘ I write plays about things that I can’t resolve in my mind. I try to root things out.” –  the theatre and its perpetrators have always been on the attack.  And long may it continue – apart from anything else it shows, indeed, that the pen is mightier than the sword.  
So – no Paddy – you should not feel safe in the theatre.  It’s a Live Performance – and anything can happen.  And it frequently does.

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