A Mirror for our times

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Standing outside the Trafalgar Theatre, it is hard for me to ignore the sensation of being at the fulcrum of political power. Caught between Whitehall and Shaftesbury Avenue, a stone’s throw from Downing Street and Theatreland, the Trafalgar lies in the coursing maelstrom of art, authority and transgression.

The immersive element of this production is profound

These are the themes that underpin A Mirror, Sam Holcroft’s powerful production directed by Jeremy Herrin, the latest play to grace the Trafalgar. Starring award-winning actors Johnny Lee Miller (Trainspotting, Elementary) and Tanya Reynolds (Sex Education, Scenes with Girls), the production takes place in a draconian otherworld, characterised by rampant state censorship.

When I saw A Mirror, during its previous run at the Almeida Theatre, I was struck by not only the quality of acting and stage production, but also by how timely it felt. The play explores theatre censorship. Formal censorship of theatre took place in Britain until 1968, with the abolition of the Office of the Lord Chamberlain, which had controlled the licensing of theatre productions since 1737. The same role had previously been performed by the Master of the Revels. In 1968, many liberals believed we were entering a golden age of boundless free expression. This dream has at best been only partially realised.

The immersive element of this production is profound. We begin with a scene of a wedding, which serves as a cover for the true event, which we have come to see: a play. We are informed that “this performance is being staged without a licence from the Ministry”, with the cast stating that they “recognise the risk that each and every one of you is taking by attending, and we salute your courage”. Of course, these events are fictional. We do not live in a society such as the one depicted, where the act of putting on a play is so transgressive one fears arrest, or worse.

I was struck by not only the quality of acting and stage production, but also by how timely it felt

However, there are times when this production feels almost real. We, the audience, are complicit in this production. Just as Prospero, at the end of The Tempest, asks his audience to release him from his enchantment through “prayer” (applause), the audience of A Mirror, referred to as a “congregation”, are asked to “please stand and swear the Oath of Allegiance”. There is certainly magic in the air in this production, but a dark magic, that captivates, and enthrals.

The fascistic undertones are evident throughout this play. However, this production is not simply a parable for Nazism. The issue of censorship still haunts us today, with voices that do not conform to the status quo often sidelined. We see this in much of our contemporary culture, where male, pale and deceased still aptly describe most writers and artists studied on exam syllabi, or venerated in our museums and galleries, while marginalised voices still struggle to break through in Broadway and the West End. This issue is exacerbated by class and socio-economic background, particularly in Britain, where the privately-educated still hold sway across academia and the arts.

We, the audience, are complicit in this production

As we celebrate International Women’s Day this week, and reflect on the noble strides women have made towards greater emancipation, the censoring of women’s voices sadly continues to be felt. From Iran to Afghanistan, women remain locked out of education and the arts altogether. In the United States, the weakening of abortion rights makes it harder for women to pursue careers and seek out their own destinies. While here in Britain, male voices continue to hold sway across academia, literature and the arts.

According to theatre critic, newspaper columnist and scholar, Kate Maltby: “Every mode of censorship depicted in A Mirror – from the brutal to the subtle – is practiced somewhere in the world today”. This production is certainly one thing: a mirror for our times.

Following its critically-acclaimed, sold-out run at the Almeida, A Mirror transfers to the Trafalgar Theatre from 22 January to 20 April 2024. Exclusive to Palatinate readers, the discount code STUDENT25 can be used to purchase tickets at the discounted rate of £25. Tickets are available here: https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/a-mirror-west-end/

Pictured: Tanya Reynolds in A Mirror

Image: Kate Hassell via Trafalgar Theatre Productions

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