Donmar Warehouse denies it is pandering to easily offended by listing disturbing content.
Theatre audiences are used to being warned about nudity and violence when booking tickets, as well as strobe lighting, flashing lights and characters smoking a cigarette.
Now a leading British theatre is going one step further by providing extra detail about any potentially disturbing content.
The Donmar Warehouse is trialling a scheme giving people more nuts and bolts information about scenes that could be upsetting. It admits that it could be a spoiler.
The policy will inevitably bring accusations of indulging the more politically correct, over-sensitive parts of society, something the theatre’s executive producer, Henny Finch, denies.
“I don’t think we’re pandering,” she said. “I think it is just about being considerate to all audiences, and making sure that everybody feels comfortable, and making the theatre as accessible as possible.”
The theatre’s website is offering concerned ticket-buyers information that they previously would have had to telephone the box office to find out.
For example – spoiler alert – there are five content advisories for its new production of David Greig’s Europe, which opened to acclaim last week.
• “In the first half of the play, a man repeatedly places his hand on a woman’s leg, to her discomfort.”
• “In the second half of the play, a man beats up another man due to his status as a migrant.”
• “In the second half of the play, a man describes a violent attack on a woman.”
For Caryl Churchill’s play Far Away, opening next February, it warns: “There are multiple descriptions of violent acts towards people and animals towards the end of the play.”
For Lyn Nottage’s play Sweat, opening in December, the theatre warns: “Several characters are seen to be under the influence of drugs at multiple points during the play.”
A discussion of drug use is flagged up for Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play Appropriate, as is a discussion by characters of an album of photos of lynchings.
Finch said the new warnings had been carefully drafted in consultation with the artistic director, Michael Longhurst, and the artists involved in the plays. “Hopefully they give people enough information about whether they want to prepare themselves for a show, or decide whether or not they want to come,” she said.
“I think the world is changing and audiences expect different things and we have to be responsive to that in theatre.”
The move could be seen as mirroring the “trigger warnings” that are increasingly used by universities and colleges to warn or shield students from potentially disturbing content.
The theatre critic Mark Shenton, president of the Critics’ Circle, said the Donmar’s move was a step too far. “Theatre is all about surprise and by accommodating the sensitivities of some of its audience it could be ruining that surprise. You can’t protect people from everything. It will ruin the theatre.”
Terri Paddock, theatre commentator and founder of the Mytheatremates website for theatre bloggers, said she sympathised with the Donmar’s motivation but fears it will be a red rag to some people on the right.
“I feel it might actually harm our cause of liberalism rather than help us. I’m on the Donmar’s side and I get why they are doing it, but I worry that it will be twisted by people who want to see it as an over-reach, or over-sensitivity, or political correctness gone mad.
“I don’t think it is, I think they are putting a few additional details on their website and if people find that is helpful then that is great.”
Longhurst and Finch are the new regime at the Donmar, succeeding Josie Rourke and Kate Pakenham at a London theatre that has always punched much bigger than its small size.
Finch stressed that the scheme was a trial and they were looking for feedback. She said that the warning information was published in such a way that people could not come across it by accident.
“Some people want to prepare ahead, some don’t. It is increasingly a trend to have notes about content on TV and in academic institutions, probably less so in theatres, but we’re interested to see how it goes.”