Obscene gestures: can a theatre show ever go too far?

Offence is in the eye of the beholder, but Irish theatre has a robust reputation for pushing boundaries, and many theatres and companies have suffered for their artistic freedom

Obscenity is a volatile currency; something that has the power to shock or offend one day can be considered practically quaint another. For that reason obscenity has always been hard to define. Blasphemy? Swear words? Birth control? Infidelity? Nudity? Sexuality? As the US Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart famously said, in 1964, while trying to avoid a definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

Some people, of course, are inclined to see it everywhere and performers have often tested the limits of what is considered acceptable either purposefully or unwittingly. Throughout the early 1960s the comedian Lenny Bruce, a political foul mouth, was arrested so frequently for obscenity he began to deliberately court it. At one performance in Sydney, crammed with police, Bruce opened with the words, "What a wonderful fucking audience!" and was immediately arrested. (Like Jim Morrison, variously arrested for public profanity and indecent exposure, Bruce was pardoned posthumously.)

In Dublin, as recently as 1991, the late Thom McGinty, who gave street performances as the Diceman, was charged with “offending public decency” for a revealing costume. (He reappeared soon after with “Censored” signs over the offending articles of his anatomy.)

And in 2004, a Project Arts Centre patron brought an unsuccessful case against the International Dance Festival Ireland, when he objected to a performance by the French choreographer Jerome Bel, which involved nudity and onstage urination. He sued for breach of contract and negligence, not obscenity, but the judge, while rejecting the claim for €38,000 in damages, addressed those misgivings: something that was an arrestable offence on the public street, he said, could be considered art when performed on the stage. Given Ireland's considerably less open-minded history of censorship and obscenity trials, it was an important distinction, but the cost to the festival was significant.


Early this year in Dublin, the choreographers and performers Ruairí Donovan and Asaf Aharonson presented a work in progress at The Theatre Machine Turns You On that seemed determined to make a scene. Donovan took to the stage with his partner and began a discussion about onstage obscenity, scrutinising legal and historical reference, while Aharonson, smiling beatifically, stripped naked and began arranging the stage. Even in that early iteration, it was an artful tease: hinting at ideas of artistic licence and offence, intimating that the performers – gentle and benign throughout – would do something to test the limits of current legislation. It was a bracing, timely and disarming performance, with a modicum of audience participation, which resolved into something more genuinely searching and confessional. Speaking recently, ahead of their performance at this year's Tiger Dublin Fringe, while preparing to participate in a show in Berlin, under the banner "Objects, Animals and Perversions", Donovan and Aharonson seemed like a very approachable model of perversity.

Their project, entitled Ghosts, began 18 months ago, largely as a way for its makers to spend more time together. "We're trying to think of it on the whole as a dance that is a document of our relationship," says Donovan. That may be its simplest explanation, and it is clearly a personal piece, but the work has evolved in a number of unanticipated directions. A sprawling approach to research has absorbed the work of the political philosopher Michael Hardt, theorist Jane Bennett, queer theory in nature and even studies in quantum entanglement, which partly inspired the show's name: "Einstein referred to quantum entanglement as 'spooky science'," says Donovan, "and we liked the nod to that."

Another version of the show, at this year’s Cork Midsummer Festival, involved a collaboration with a sound artist to make music from potted plants. “It’s kind of spun off and spun back,” Donovan says of the show’s organic development.

It is one of the few shows, though, where a tiny line of warning in the Tiger Dublin Fringe brochure – “This performance contains nudity and sexual content” – could also double as a plot synopsis. There are, they agree, more ways than one to expose yourself.

"We were thinking a lot about what it means to take our intimate relationship and to present it onstage – to perform it," says Aharonson. "In a sense, it makes our relationship a commodity." In Ghosts, intimacy and obscenity become fascinatingly inclined: for all that warning about "sexual content" nothing seems to cause more frisson, or hesitation, than moments of the performer's apparently unscripted personal confessions.

This is also where the work of Hardt comes in: “To explore the idea of how love can be a political force in the world,” says Donovan. “As our bodies and spaces become more and more privatised and cut off from each other, it’s important that we challenge these archaic laws or conservative sensibilities and open up spaces for people to have different ways of relating to each other.”

Another explanation for the title has been the distancing effects of communication technology, where digital devices twitch like phantom limbs: the subtitle of the piece has always been, “trying to connect”.

They recognise that these are privileged problems to have; that audiences in Cork, Dublin and Berlin are not easily scandalised and few limits in this part of the world are imposed on art or speech. It's a far cry from the events surrounding the opening performance of the first ever Dublin Theatre Festival, The Rose Tattoo at the Pike Theatre in 1957, to which Ghosts pays close attention.

The basis of the State’s dogged pursuit of the Pike’s director Alan Simpson” – arrested for “producing for gain an indecent and profane performance” – would be laughable, had its toll not been so tragic. The objection, it was understood, was towards a scene in which a condom falls from one character’s pocket, a sequence that Simpson’s production had merely mimed. Although the Pike was finally exonerated, with a judgment that ensured no Irish production could be shut down on a charge of obscenity until proven in court, the costs of the case were enough to destroy the Pike.

Donovan and Aharonson share the indignation of this history, and are examining laws that still have implications for artistic expression today: the 1946 Censorship of Publications Act and the Defamation Act 2009 (which covers blasphemy). On stage, they deliberately present themselves as disarmingly gentle figures – Aharonson refers to their method as “enchantment” rather than “hard provocation” and Donovan admits, “Aggression is not our tact.” Yet they are inclined to test certain limits, “walking on eggshells” or conducting “a tantalising foreplay” in the risk of going too far. Whether that involves a real or suggested transgression may be partly the point: obscenity, like beauty, has always been in the eye of the beholder.

“I think it’s up to the audience to decide whether they think these laws are archaic or if they must be upheld for the good of the country,” says Donovan, evenly, aware that these are times of social and statutory re-evaluation. “We’re happy to leave that question open. I think it’s an interesting time to be Irish and also to be making work and presenting work in Ireland. Legislation is changing around us and has changed in the past year, and hopefully it will continue to make improvements. But let’s see.”

Ghosts run at the Tiger Dublin Fringe has concluded