Despite strong performances from the leads, Roundpeg Theatre’s restaging of The Censor ironically struggles to make its voice heard amongst more powerful contemporary feminist narratives.
Since the first performance of Antony Neilson’s The Censor over twenty years ago, attitudes to sex – and pornography specifically – have shifted significantly. Though today’s more liberal attitudes somewhat weaken the shock factor I imagine this play once had on audiences, the questions it poses and provocations are still impactful. When a female pornographer comes face-to-face with her censor, a study of power, sexuality and a critique on social and human behaviour ensues. With the Censor holding the key to the future of Mrs Fontaine’s film, the hour-long play – here presented by Roundpeg Theatre – revolves around the conversation in which Mrs Fontaine attempts to convince the Censor of her films validity and its social pertinence in hope that it might see the light of day.
Director Imogen Beech guides the cast of three through these thought-provoking topics, primarily focusing on attitudes to sex and the subtext behind such opinions. Mrs Fontaine and the Censor are opposites; Mrs Fontaine is unabashedly open and intimately self-assured, whilst the censor is stifling repressed both emotionally and sexually. The relationship between the performers maps the progression of their characters, most pertinently the Censor’s powerful unfurling at the knowing insight which the elusive Mrs Fontaine uses to taunt and tantalise him. Mrs Fontaine moves the other way, appearing unwavering in her beliefs in the outset, yet in her final appearance shows some discomfort and unease, something the audience doesn’t expect from her.
Mrs Fontaine is undeniably a challenging role, and one Suzy Whitefield handles elegantly. With little of her history ever discussed, Mrs Fontaine’s character is revealed through her sexual prowess and astute observation and manipulation of her censor. Whitefield’s portrayal is suitably elusive with an honourable attempt at unwavering confidence in the face of some pretty vulnerable and challenging moments for an actor. Her approach to portraying the powerfully sexual and layered Mrs Fontaine is subtle, which the production benefits from.
The moments of fragility that the audience is afforded are perhaps the most interesting aspect of the play, though they are never fully embellished in the script and we’re left yearning to see more of this softness. This leads to the unfortunate paradox in the text that despite its feminist undertones, the richest character on the page in terms of written-detail is not only the one holding the key to the oppression of female sexuality, but is also the only man.
Despite this, Jonathan McGarrity as the Censor does hold his own against his powerful counterpart – depicting a full character arc of a man awakened from his repression and encouraged to feel, only to be cruelly met by loss. The Censor’s wife, played by Chandrika Chevil, suffers from having little material to work with and a small supporting role to build on which renders her character functional rather than exciting, though this is no fault of the actor.
The intimate staging makes the evocative and graphic action onstage inescapable for the audience, encouraging them to confront their own stigma and socialised reservations regarding sex and empowered female sexuality. However, I can’t help but feel that this story feels outdated: we’ve been interrogating these notions for many years and whilst the world certainly still oppresses the expression of sexuality (feminine or otherwise), The Censor doesn’t bring anything new to today’s debates. Despite a climatic defecation onstage, although this may be reflective of the liberal world in which I live, the story doesn’t really shock and neither did this production of it.