Australian playwright disappointed censors axed Beijing play

CANBERRA, Australia — Renowned Australian playwright David Williamson said Tuesday that he is disappointed Chinese censors have canceled a production of his play “The Removalists” for the official reason that it contains bad language and violence.

The 76-year-old said some involved in the production suspect the true reason the classic Australian play was banned was its depiction of police abusing their authority — a sensitive issue in China.

The play was axed during a period of intense diplomatic tensions between China and Australia over Australian policies including a proposed ban on foreign interference in domestic politics.

Australian beef and wine producers complain that their exports have fallen victim to China’s approach of punishing businesses and individuals to send a message to a country’s government.

Williamson and his wife had flown from Sydney to see the play performed Tuesday night at the annual Beijing Nanluoguxiang Performing Arts Festival.

The couple had seen the play performed Saturday at the Beijing Foreign Studies University before an audience of around 300 students. Because tickets weren’t sold to the free performance, it escaped the ban.

The play, written in 1971 and set in a gritty Melbourne neighborhood, was performed in English by Chinese actors with Mandarin subtitles on a screen.

“The censors allowed the university production to go head but they banned the planned production at the festival tonight … officially on the grounds that the language was too salty and that the play was too violent,” Williamson told the AP by phone from Beijing.

“There’s some speculation that that mightn’t have been the real reason. Because the play does depict police authority well and truly overstepping its mark, which is a sensitive issue here in China at the moment,” he added.

Chinese authorities routinely censor all manner of information and entertainment.

The play’s director Joe Graves, an American who heads Peking University’s Institute of World Theatre and Film, said foreign plays had to be approved by censorship boards at national, state, city and municipal district levels.

Each board could have vetoed the festival production, but Graves did not know which had.

China’s Ministry of Culture referred requests for comment to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture, which it said was responsible for approving plays. An official at the municipal bureau’s department in charge of examining and approving productions who provided only her surname, Yao, said she knew nothing about the Australian play.

Graves said he had submitted more than 150 foreign plays to Chinese censors during his 17 years in Beijing and only a dozen had been rejected.

“I was surprised that that play was censored,” Graves said.

“My gut feeling is that the police brutality” was the reason, he added. “Police brutality has been widely in the news here with some really disturbing incidents in small towns where police were taking advantage.”

Graves said he would have found out the specific reason through an appeal if he had more notice, but the censor’s decision was made only two weeks ago.

Graves doubted Chinese animosity toward Australia was the cause, since the Australian play “Cosi” was included in the festival.

Williamson said Tuesday’s performance could have led to a run of performances in China.

Another of his classic plays, “The Club,” was brought to China in 2002 and ran intermittently for a year. Williamson noted that “The Club,” a 1977 satire about a Melbourne Australian Rules Football team that was called “Players” in a U.S. production, contained “a little bit of salty language too.”

Both “The Club” and “The Removalists” — a story that ends with two police officers’ brutal response to a wife’s complaint of a battering husband — were adapted into movies of the same titles.

Williamson is one of Australia’s best known playwrights, with a string of Australian and British awards for his work on stage and screen.