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Trigger warnings at the theatre are pandering to a PC, over-sensitive section of society

Sir Ian McKellen 
Credit: Rex Features

Friends are urging me to go and see Sir Ian McKellen in the one-man show marking his 80th birthday.

The great actor, forever that impish lad from Bolton, delivers readings from Lord of the Rings and Shakespeare as well as reviving his uproarious panto turn as Widow Twankey.

It got us talking about the best McKellen performances. I remember seeing him, back in 1979, in Bent at the Royal Court. McKellen and the equally wonderful Tom Bell played two homosexuals in Nazi Germany.

A love scene (if you can call it that) in a concentration camp is snagged in the memory like the barbed wire that separated the two men. McKellen’s portrayal of anguish was raw, naked and never to be forgotten. Great theatre has the remarkable power of transforming the savage into the sublime.

Would Bent have made the same shocking impression on me if the programme had contained “trigger warnings” about the “disturbing content”?

That is what the Donmar Warehouse has decided to do for its new production of David Greig’s Europe. Ticket purchasers are cautioned, in all seriousness, that:

“In the first half of the play, a man repeatedly places his hand on a woman’s leg, to her discomfort.”

“In the second half of the play, a man beats up another man due to his status as a migrant.”

“In the second half of the play, a man describes a violent attack on a woman.”

Henny Finch, the Donmar’s executive producer, denies that they are pandering to a politically correct, over-sensitive section of society.

“I think it is just about being considerate to all audiences, and making sure that everybody feels comfortable, and making the theatre as accessible as possible,” she says.

Really? Since when was going to the theatre supposed to be a “comfortable” experience? Since when did “accessible” mean preparing an audience for the full horror of some bloke touching a woman’s leg?

You do wonder how on earth theatre’s acknowledged masterpieces would have fared if they had come with trigger warnings:

“In the first half of the play, a man sees the ghost of his father who has been killed by his uncle/stepfather. The man is abusive, both verbally and physically, to his girlfriend, and stabs her father. In the second half of the play, the girl goes mad and drowns herself. The man tries to poison his stepfather but his mum drinks the poison instead. She dies. The man is pretty upset and he runs his stepfather through with a poisoned sword. Migrants from Norway come in.”

“A man has sex with his own mother. He also murders his father. He gouges out his own eyes. Warning: also contains Sphinx.”

“In the first half of the play, a plate of cucumber sandwiches is violently consumed. Not gluten free. In the second half, one character recounts how as a child he was abused by being left in a handbag. He grows up with severe identity issues and separation anxiety. Contains scenes of elite white privilege which some viewers may find disturbing.”

Read Allison Pearson's latest column on telegraph.co.uk every Tuesday from 7pm