James Haddrell on the aftermath of Leaving Neverland

James Haddrell is the artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

Last week the major new documentary Leaving Neverland was aired, detailing the alleged abuse of two young boys committed over several years by Michael Jackson.

Directed by Bafta winner Dan Reed, the documentary generated interest right across the media, but as much as a discussion of the reported crimes, the documentary sparked a major ethical discussion about art – can you ever separate the artist from the art, or indeed, should you even try?

As media bosses struggled to decide whether Jackson’s music should be banned from public broadcast, a report in The Times suggested that the BBC had done just that.

The broadcaster later denied an official ban, suggesting rather that the station in question, Radio 2, is dedicated to new releases. Other broadcasters around the world have been divided in their response, some instituting a ban while others seem to find another reason to stop playing Jackson’s music, seeking to sidestep accusations of censorship while doing just that. The question at the heart of the debate is whether it is appropriate to value the artistic creation of someone who has committed a crime – or, as in this case, has been accused of having committed a crime – but if we are to start censoring art based on the behaviour of artists, then the canon will need to be revisited and the domino effect will undoubtedly astonish many people.

Enid Blyton was an adulteress and bullying mother, so should our children be denied access to her hundreds of books? Accusations have been made about Lewis Carroll’s relationships with children, in particular with the real-life Alice (daughter of his neighbour, the Dean of Christ Church) and her sisters, so should we stop reading Alice In Wonderland? Jackson Pollock was an abusive drunk so is his work unfit for public consumption? Not criminal enough for censure? How about Caravaggio? When he lived in Rome he was famous for his violent and provocative nature, and ultimately he fled to Naples to escape a murder charge. Should we remove his paintings from display in galleries around the world?

The debate becomes admittedly more complicated when those accused or convicted of criminal behaviour are still alive and able to benefit from their art, but the debate remains valid.

One thing is beyond doubt though – we do love to know the artist as much as the art. It may be that the latter brings a person to our attention, but whether it is through gossip columns in the press, dramatised accounts or scholarly research, artists past and present have become celebrities.

That interest in artists’ lives has made posthumous studies a regular subject for new artworks, a new way to find out about the people behind the works that we have come to love.

Whether it is the Jackson documentary or Helena Bonham-Carter taking on the role of Enid Blyton in a dramatised biopic, Ed Harris playing Jackson Pollock or Derek Jacobi bringing Francis Bacon to life, the “true story of the artist” has become a staple of the screen.

Next month, that extends to the stage when audiences at Greenwich Theatre will have the rare opportunity to see an artist in the dock. The Trials Of Oscar Wilde, returning to London for one week only following an acclaimed West End run, takes the words spoken at both of Wilde’s trials and restages them for a modern audience, who find themselves cast in the collective role of the jury.

Whilst the audience clearly won’t be able to change what happened, whether they may want to or not, the show written by Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland will at least give a glimpse of the man behind the plays. For good or for ill, we seem to want to know the artists that make the art that we consume, and there can be few better ways of achieving that than through a word-for-word restaging of an event at which Wilde could not rely on the carefully crafted crowd-pleasing lines of his plays, but rather was forced to speak off the cuff and reveal the man that lay behind them.

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