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WYP Poster Controversy

West Yorkshire Playhouse has unintentionally found itself in the local news over the last couple of days because of a controversy that has blown up over the poster image for their forthcoming production of John Ford’s 1633 tragedy Tis Pity She’s a Whore. The problem is that the poster uses this photograph as its dominant image:

Production promotional image

The beige background is stretched in different directions depending on the shape /size of the poster, and the play’s title – in large white print – is superimposed across this background colour, as are the other relevant show details (in smaller print).  Apparently, the controversy has blown up because members of the local Roman Catholic community have chosen to read a literal connection between the play’s title and the icon statue of Mary and Jesus – and thus to conclude that the poster is implying that the Virgin Mary is a whore.

Now, this image has been in Playhouse season brochures for months, and has prompted only one or two complaints from members of the public. But now a large, screened version of the poster has been plastered across the wall of the Playhouse facing toward the main road and the rest of the city (as always happens with immediately forthcoming productions), as a result of which all hell seems to have broken loose. WYP has been asked to remove this poster (and presumably, by extension, all the other versions of it) by the Catholic Bishop of Leeds, Arthur Roche. The Playhouse has been fielding regular complaints from members of the public – some of whom are insisting that the poster has been put up specifically to offend the faithful in Holy Week (i.e. next week – although the show doesn’t open until May 7th). And then last night representatives from West Yorkshire Police appeared at the theatre’s reception desk to announce that the theatre may be in breach of public order statutes – if the continued presence of the poster causes disorder or affray.

At this point, it seems to me, we have entered Alice in Looking Glass territory. This poster is only offensive if one looks to find offence in it – by connecting the words on the poster with one component in its image. But since when did theatre posters operate to literally illustrate their titles? Should the recent poster for the WYP production of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea have featured Maxine Peake swimming around in the ocean instead of standing at the bottom of some stairs? Should last year’s Death of a Salesman have featured Philip Jackson lying prone in a coffin instead of looking earnestly into the camera? Right next to the offending Tis Pity poster, right now, is another for the musical The Wiz, featuring a pair of female feet in silver dancing shoes. Should this, instead, be an image of a man in a black pointy hat, eating a cheez wiz, having a wee?

It is not at all difficult to find the rationale for the image as it stands, which has nothing to do with trying to cause offence. The image of Mary weeping over the body of Jesus is, first and foremost, an image of grief and mourning. The play is a tragedy, after all. Juxtaposed with the statue is a photo on the wall featuring two small children holding hands – a brother and a sister. Since the play deals with an incestuous affair between a brother and a sister, the image might best be read as one alluding to mourning for lost innocence. Of course, the icon statue is also obviously of Roman Catholic provenance, but this is appropriate since Tis Pity is set in a corrupt Italian state, dominated by a corrupt Catholic clergy (the first two names on the dramatis personae list are Bonaventura, a friar, and the Cardinal, a nuncio to the Pope). Nobody, however, is suggesting that all Catholic clergy are corrupt, and since this play is nearly 400 years old and doesn’t normally cause public outrage, there was no reason to think this image would do more than any other poster image is supposed to – i.e. engage public interest in the production.

Some in the blogosphere (see for instance have concluded that the poster is an attempt at cheap publicity through controversy — on the cynical basis that “all publicity is good publicity”. In that case, those stirring up the controversy are actually doing the Playhouse a favour – and perhaps, indeed, ticket sales will rise because more people are aware of the production’s existence than was the case before this week. But my sources (which are pretty good) assure me that nobody at the Playhouse was seeking offend anyone, and that nobody saw this coming. Should they then remove the posters, at considerable cost to themselves (I’d estimate in the region of several thousand pounds), because some people are unexpectedly offended? If this principle was followed, how many other things that unintentionally give offence to different sections of the public would have to be removed or apologised for? What if I declared myself offended by the Catholic church’s publicly-advertised positions on contraception or homosexuality, for example? Would West Yorkshire Police be visiting Bishop Roche asking him to take them down?  And what, indeed, are West Yorkshire Police up to, in colluding with what is in effect a call for religious censorship? Didn’t the link between state authority and the Catholic church end some time before this play was even written?