Sam West, the new artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, plans to revive Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain. This is the play that inspired Mary Whitehouse in 1980 to prosecute the director Michael Bogdanov “for procuring an act of gross indecency”. The scene in question was a homosexual rape. The case was eventually withdrawn, but the precedent was set that the Sexual Offences Act applies to theatre, which has prevented any theatre reviving the play.
It is an extraordinarily brilliant play shunted into the sidelines by a preposterous legal action. It’s clearly about the history of imperialism but its brilliance lies in the way it forces us to empathise with two groups of people at the same time: both the Roman invaders and their Celtic victims who are not plucky and misunderstood but violent, crass, difficult and irreligious. What for the Romans is a tiny moment of history is from the Celts’ point of view a disaster. It’s precisely the kind of story we should be telling now in that it’s about the dubious legacy of imperialism.
A spokesman for Whitehouse’s re-named organisation, Mediawatch-UK, says,
Any revival will have to take 1980 very seriously. The precedent set then still stands, so they’ll have to consider if it’s worth including this scene.