Theatre is one of the most powerful mediums through which to convey a story and has been for thousands of years. People flock to see actors in a live show because they convey the full range of human emotions in an intimate setting, through emotionally resonant stories that stick with the audience long after the curtains have closed.
But sometimes this power can be controversial. Throughout human history, public performances have been used to incite revolution and bring new ideas into the mainstream – in much the same way movies and TV are used today. Theatre performances can transcend cultural boundaries and demonstrate new ideologies or ways of living to hungry audiences. However, this can also spark cultural backlash from more conservative members of society, who prefer preconceived and traditional values. These, then, are just three of the most controversial plays ever performed.
Lysistrata by Aristophanes
First performed in Ancient Athens in 411 BC, Lysistrata is a sexual comedy whose influence is still felt in Western society some 1600 years later. A gender comedy with a serious political point, Lysistrata sees the women of warring Athens and Sparta come (or maybe not) together to deny sex to their male partners in attempt to stop the war. Unfortunately, their attempts only inflame the conflict further – and much hilarity ensues. Considered a savage critique of the macho and warlike patriarchal system that dominated the classical world at the time, the play would have been controversial for many Greek citizens of the time. The play would continue to be performed for another 1500 years, when a controversial Black theatre group put on a racially-tinged production of the play in 1930s Seattle – which was shut down by local government on opening night.
Behzti by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti
Named after the Hindu word for honour, Birmingham UK born Kaur Bhatti used this 2004 play to explore the hypocrisy shown by many members of religious communities around the world. Not only that but it takes on the heavy topics of discrimination, cultural identity, family ties and much more. However, it was the setting of parts of the play (that include a rape scene and a murder among other transgressive acts) in a seek Gurdwara temple that caused the most uproar. Within a day of the play opening, it was forced to close, and the playwright went into hiding after a small minority of local protesters turned violent outside the Birmingham Repertory Theatre where it was being staged.
Saved by Edward Bond
This 1960s play starts out with the recounting of a gruesome hit and run, and then never really lets up from there until the final act. A series of depressing scenes culminates in the beating and eventual stoning of a baby in a pram, in a deeply disturbing moment that saw the play banned in the UK under the UK theatres act 1968. However, critics and audiences noted the depth of bleak, yet somehow hopeful, emotion that Saved offered – including Laurence Olivier himself, who said it was a play ‘the grown-ups of this country should have the courage to look at.’