‘Don’t come if you are worried’: former RSC boss says he hates trigger warnings for plays

<span>Gregory Doran, a former artistic director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, said: ‘If you are anxious, stay away.’</span><span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Gregory Doran, a former artistic director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, said: ‘If you are anxious, stay away.’Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

It is a play renowned for its extreme physical violence, with scenes featuring execution, rape and mutilation. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus even culminates with its eponymous character, the Roman general Titus, feeding Tamora, the queen of the Goths, her own sons “baked in a pie” before slaughtering her.

But the play – and others like it – should not carry trigger warnings, according to the former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who has declared that he “hates them”.

Speaking with students at a Q&A session after a lecture on the play, Gregory Doran became the latest theatre luminary to wade into the debate. He warned anxious audience members to simply avoid plays so that they would not be upset by distressing content, the Stage reported.

Related: Gregory Doran: ‘Shakespeare defines things when you can’t’

“How do you do [content warnings] for Titus Andronicus?” Doran said. “You just don’t come. Don’t come if you are worried, if you are anxious – stay away.”

Doran’s lecture at London South Bank University celebrated 30 years since the RSC’s production of Titus Andronicus at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, which went on to run at London’s National Theatre. Doran directed that production with his partner, Antony Sher, who later became his husband but died in 2021.

Content warnings in the theatre industry have become a point of contention in the last few years, and been used as ammunition against “wokery” and the “snowflake” mentality. While some liken them to warnings about strobe lighting, which can trigger seizures, others say they diminish the power of art and literature to shock and discomfit.

In 2021, the Globe Theatre made headlines when it said it would provide warnings about “upsetting” themes – suicide and drug use – in Romeo and Juliet, and provided a number for Samaritans after the show. Less than a year later, the theatre was criticised again after it said it was issuing content warnings about “stage blood and weapons including knives” before performances of Julius Caesar.

The actor Christopher Biggins responded: “Do we have to have signs for everything under the sun? It’s a joke. What they are trying to do is insulting to the mentality of theatregoers.”

Other theatres to have introduced trigger warnings include the Chichester Festival Theatre and the Old Vic in London.

Ralph Fiennes, renowned for his roles in Schindler’s List and the Harry Potter films, recently suggested that modern audiences had “gone too soft” and that the element of surprise was what made theatre enticing.

“I don’t think you should be prepared for these things … Shakespeare’s plays are full of murder and full of horror, and as a young student and lover of the theatre, I never experienced trigger warnings like, ‘Oh, by the way, in King Lear, Gloucester’s going to have his eyes pulled out,’” Fiennes said last month. “Theatre needs to be alive and in the present. It’s the shock, it’s the unexpected, that’s what makes the theatre so exciting.”

Last year, Ian McKellen also criticised signs at his own play Frank and Percy at the Other Palace in London, which warned of strong language, sexual references and discussions of bereavement and cancer. “I think it’s ludicrous, myself,” the 84-year-old said. “I quite like to be surprised by loud noises and outrageous behaviour on stage.”

But trauma survivors have spoken of the impact that some scenes can have on their mental health. “I do not go to the theatre to be lectured, needled, or otherwise upset,” one Guardian reader wrote.

And the Guardian theatre critic Arifa Akbar wrote in February: “Surely we are all entitled to engage with theatre on terms with which we feel comfortable. If a warning serves some of us well, then they are doing no harm to the rest.” She added that we “live in a time when there are no longer the harmful taboos around issues such as mental health”, and said trigger warnings were a reflection of that.