Why the arts has a duty to highlight distressing truths - Yvette Huddleston

It was reported this week that London theatre the Donmar Warehouse is trialling a scheme giving people extra information about scenes in their productions which some audience members may find distressing.

Shows like Years and Years have been unafraid to touch on bleak aspects of life.
Shows like Years and Years have been unafraid to touch on bleak aspects of life.

Theatregoers have become accustomed to being given warnings about nudity, violence, smoking, loud noises and flashing lights in plays they are about to see – but some think that this might be going a little too far. Theatre critic Mark Shenton, president of the Critics’ Circle, argued that “theatre is all about surprise and by accommodating some of its audience it could be ruining that surprise. You can’t protect people from everything”.

Why Lesley Manville's Mum is much more than just a sitcomHe added, somewhat dramatically, “it will ruin the theatre”. I’m not convinced it will do that, but Shenton’s observation that the impact of a piece might be lessened by what is, essentially, a kind of spoiler, is perhaps valid. (Although it must be pointed out that it is entirely possible to avoid reading the warnings – you have to actively seek them out on the website).

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It is also worth saying that executive producer Henny Finch has stressed the scheme is a trial and that they are looking for feedback on it. While I am entirely sympathetic with the Donmar’s thoughtful, considerate approach – its aim, as stated on the theatre’s website, is to make ‘the Donmar welcoming to everyone’ – there is a caveat.

We can't allow culture to become sole preserve of middle classesThe arts have various functions – to inform and entertain, yes, but also to make us think and at times to deliberately shock or disturb in order to communicate an urgent message or tell a story that needs to be told. Life can be joyful and exciting, but also painful and sad. It involves risk and upset and the arts have a duty to reflect that. Fiction needs to be grounded in truth and the truth isn’t always palatable.

Talking of works of fiction that might cause distress – the most terrifying experience I’ve had in that regard recently has been watching Russell T Davies’ dystopian drama Years and Years on BBC iPlayer.

Following the fortunes of one British family over the course of 15 years at a time of political, economical, technological and environmental turmoil from 2019 to 2034, it makes for horribly compelling viewing.

The script is outstanding and the stellar cast includes Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, Russell Tovey and Jessica Hynes, but it is not easy to watch. Featuring outspoken politicians whose views divide the nation, teens literally fused to their tech and global unrest teetering on catastrophe, it’s all a little too close to our current reality. But it is, most definitely, a story that needs to be told.