Monday, 26 April 2010

The Racial Papers – Slight Return (part one)

In September 2007 I wrote: “For some reason everything theatre-related written over the last few days seems to have been somehow related to race.” Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Ok, not *everything*, but race on stage seems once again to be a topic of discussion. Depressingly, it seems to be exactly the same discussion as last time.

The first example occurs in this Guardian interview by Nosheen Iqbal with the American playwright Lynn Nottage:
‘I tell her I'm surprised the National theatre weren’t the first to stage Ruined here. “They told me they'd already done their Africa play last year,” she flashes back. ‘

This brief exchange raises a number of interesting points. The first is the number of assumptions and implications that Iqbal’s prompt makes about the National Theatre. The second is the curious attempt to paint the NT as some sort of box-ticking monolith of mildly racist Anglo-centricity.

As a point of fact – I went back and checked – The National actually staged two plays about Africa last year: Death and the King’s Horsemen one by Nigerian Nobel Laureate (and Leeds Uni alumnus) Wole Soyinka, and The Observer by British Writer Matt Charman.

This year - and it already feels absurdly reductive to be pigeonholing bits of theatre by continent like this – there’s Nigerian-born Inua Ellam’s 14th Tale and the American musical celebration of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, Fela!, produced by, among others, Jay-Z.

Difficult, then, to work out which single “Africa play” Nottage imagines “they told [her] they’d already done” [my italics].

Perhaps Iqbal has an axe to grind with the National Theatre regarding its criteria for selecting plays – unless, of course, the printed interview doesn’t record the bit where Lynn Nottage says: “Now, ask me what happened when I approached the National Theatre about staging Ruined…”.

Why would any arts journalist ask why a play that *is* going on at The Almeida isn’t going on at the National? Did anyone ask why Headlong’s The Trial of Judas Iscariot wasn’t at the NT, for example? (because the NT had “already done *their* biblical play in Paul a few years earlier?)

Will anyone be worrying Jenny Worton with question about why her adaptation of
Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly
isn’t opening at the National instead, prior to its premiere at the Almeida in June? One suspects not. So why here?

Bluntly: what’s so “National Theatre” about Ruined that isn’t “National Theatre” about one of Rupert Goold’s best bits of work, or the World Premiere of a staging of an Ingmar Bergman script? (After all, the NT hasn’t staged *anything* Swedish since 2001’s Money. Why is no one asking if this is a conspiracy to deprive Scandinavians of their voice?)

Iqbal is implying (deliberately. I checked) that what the NT has done amounts to “dutiful box-ticking which is patronising and something they need to grow up about”. It’s as if, despite the National clearly staging other plays about Africa, there’s something racist about them not also staging this one.

I disagree. In the past year the National Theatre have done “their” Polish play, three of “their” Russian plays, “their” German play, a few of “their” American plays (a category into which Nottage’s Ruined squarely falls – the fact it happens to be about Africa is neither here nor there), “their” Greek play, “their” French play, “their” play by an Irishman who sounds like he should be French, “their” Austrian and “their” British-Asian play. It’s also worth noting that “their” German play last year was Bert Brecht’s Mother Courage, the play on which Ruined was apparently based...

Yes, it’s won a Pulitzer Prize, but that’s no guarantee of a staging at the NT either. Indeed, looking at the list of recent winners far more have gone to the Royal Court or Almeida or nowhere in Britain at all.

The National Theatre manifestly produces *the* widest selection of work produced by any single theatre in Britain. Fair enough – and no slight intended to any other theatre. Other theatres don’t have the same number of stages or anything like the same level of funding. The NT is the only theatre which has the space and the money to do what it does. Even so, they almost certainly wouldn’t have taken Enron even after it’s sell-out run in Chichester because they already had The Power of Yes, for example (“their” financial crisis play). This isn’t box ticking so much as really not being able to do all the great plays that get written.

Rather than issues about “being patronising”, isn’t another the issue here: plays that sell themselves by subject? After all, the real selling point of Nottage’s play is its subject matter, and, as a subset of this, its specificity to Africa. This isn’t even a play claiming to trade on “universals” (not that I believe in them, but Hamlet never seems to get promoted by virtue of its relation to its exploration of “Danish issues”, does it?). As such, I'm not sure that it’s in the literary department the NT where the imaginary box-ticking starts.

Let’s say they get sent a script and its subject is Africa, about which they've already had two plays last year, one the year before that, and two plays this year – two, incidentally, by Africans, two from America and one by a white British writer.

I think I'm right in saying the NT opens about 30 plays a year. Only half of these are new plays. Of those 15 (let’s say) texts, they are expected to comment on Britain, Europe, North America, the Middle east, the near east, the far east, South America, Australia, and now Icelandic volcanoes, no doubt. Not to mention: all of history, every item in any given newspaper on any given day, politics, philosophy, science, religion... All the while appealing - in theory – to *everyone* in Britain *and* everyone happening to visit Britain during a play’s run, of every age, race, sexuality, class, and so on.

The job they do is enormously impressive, even when particular productions don’t pan out. With Hytner’s regime, you can at least pretty much always see why someone thought something was a good idea at the planning stages. And, as programmes go, it does seem to offer something for everyone.

At the same time, the NT are aware that they’re not the only theatre in town. I’m pretty sure it’s not unknown for them to horse-trade with scripts which might fit other spaces better. And it’s hardly a prestige drop for Nottage that Ruined is going to the Almeida.

But, because *they’re* called *The National Theatre*, they somehow have to behave, to programme, more “Nationally”, more, well, State-of-the-Nation-ly. As if something like London Assurance, for example, somehow has to be a National Comedy, rather than simply a well produced entertainment. As if a refusal from the NT is somehow Britain turning its back on a piece. It must be a bit of an albatross, really. And it somehow allows the NT’s choice of plays to be criticised in a way that, say, the Donmar or Almeida’s choices of plays just aren’t.

After all, no one’s going to have a go at the Almeida if they don’t stage another play about Africa for ten years now, are they? I'm not convinced that them doing so now amounts to box-ticking either, though. I think it's just common sense/sensible rotation of types of play, themes, topics, etc.

Who goes to see what plays, and whether certain plays attract different audiences and why, is such a huge and unknowable topic that it’s pretty much impossible to even speculate. Mike Bradwell (formerly of the Bush) once remarked that if he put on a play about lawyers (for example), they'd get more lawyers in the audience, etc. (much the same phenomenon is being observed of Posh, Enron and The Power of Yes at the moment). So, I guess stuff that is about specific communities or countries do play, in part, to a specific constituency - perhaps to the exclusion of other constituencies (the notable exceptions being plays about the BNP and heroin addicts, one supposes). Does the British-Asian community go to see plays dealing predominantly with “gay themes”, for example? Does the gay community go to see plays about African women? Does the white middle class differ in its theatre-going habits from the Asian middle class? And so on and so on.

It’s at about this point that I start wishing people weren’t so keen to pigeonhole themselves and also start wishing that audiences weren't apparently motivated to go to the theatre by what appears to be largely a problematic tendency toward narcissism.

Which neatly brings us to the other article on race-related theatre.

To be honest, Amardeep Sohi’s Guardian blog yesterday virtually had me leaping out of my chair and cheering. Well, until the very end, anyway.

His basic thrust, which cannot be repeated often enough until it stops being true, is that “British Asian theatre” (and also “Black theatre”) is stuck in a rut of tired clichés.

His conclusion begins:
“We need characters who are layered, complex and don't break out into a dance routine mid-speech.”

This is exactly right.

However, he then goes on:
“They need to be placed in real scenarios, and encourage the audience to question preconceived ideas. Let’s... revel what it's really like to be British and Asian in 2010.”

This is more of a moot point. Well, it’s three moot points really. Let’s take them one by one.
“They need to be placed in real scenarios.”

This is the least true of the three assertions. But let’s pretend for a moment that he didn’t say “real” and meant, well, interesting, speculative, possibly poetic or metaphorical situations *or* interesting real scenarios.

“[They need to] encourage the audience to question preconceived ideas.

Well yes, possibly. Although, when allied with those “real scenarios” which are detailed above it starts to sound perilously like we’re heading for the same sorts of dramas which he has wisely deplored. Yes, as he notes, Shades was a pretty good play. Largely because it was funny, likeable and had some great performances. But let’s not kid ourselves that it didn’t also make some pretty clangingly schematic points at the same time. I think that tended to get excused because on the whole it was more like fun than the usual po-faced lecturing one gets from “issue-based drama”. But it was still cast from the same mould. Just a much better version of it. A bit like Posh, if you like. But when you compare it with something like Tim Crouch’s The Author, it’s clear that it’s not functioning at anything like the same level.

“Let’s... revel what it's really like to be British and Asian in 2010.”

The idea of plays that “revel in” what something’s “really like” sounds like the worst dramatic void imaginable. The list of reasons against is probably too long to even compile.

I think it probably starts somewhere around the problematic nature of trying to evoke a “reality” using a medium like theatre. I mean, it’s not that theatre can’t evoke things, but it just doesn’t evoke them best by trying to build a replica of, well, what it’s really like inside a British-Asian home in 2010 and filling that set with the things that “really” happen within such a place in “real” life. Mostly because what anyone’s “real” life is “really” like is generally pretty undramatic. Drama – not even theatre – does tend to focus on the exception and the exceptional. As such, using it as a means of presenting some kind of living fly-on-the-wall experience is pretty much doomed to failure.

Of course I understand the impulse. After all, the over-praised Angry Young Man movement was driven by much the same sort of desire to rip off the front off so many northern terraces and push their contents into the face of theatre audiences – to confront them with unseen realities.

And perhaps there used to be a merit in this approach, in the same way that George Bernard Shaw’s tightly constructed little fables might pass for a way of “getting people to think about [such and such]”.

But again, it’s not what theatre does best. After all, going back to Hamlet again – which, let’s be honest, a lot of people are prepared to stand behind and say is one of the best plays written in the English language – how much does it really tell us about “what it’s really like to be a Danish Prince circa 990AD” (much less “revelling in it”)? And yet, how readily it seems possible to empathise with this prince, his friends, his family.

It’s more than likely that we don’t believe in ghosts and probably don’t share Hamlet’s apparently huge faith in God. But we’re moved when his father’s ghost appears to Hamlet as he screams abuse at Gertrude; we understand his decision not to kill Claudius while he is at prayer. But more than this, it is as if something else floats above the direct meaning of the text.

In theory, Hamlet is just a very wordy thriller with an almost frustratingly inept protagonist, set in a world which, if we thought about it for a moment, we wouldn’t really credit for a second. And yet, it’s fascinating, endlessly rewarding, beautiful, mysterious, horribly moving, and somehow capable of seeming to say something about what it’s like to be alive, to love, to be bereaved, to be depressed, to lose hope and to find hope.

It strikes me that, compared to the above, having as the pinning down exactnesses about specific social situations of any given community in a contemporary or historical location as the ultimate goal for a piece of theatre is a pretty low aim.

Of course, by all means set a play wherever, and fill it with all the details you like, but who really goes to the theatre to see what taps another “community” have on their kitchen sinks? A play placed on stage before an audience won’t communicate that. It’ll communicate what’s floating above what the play directly says. And if there’s nothing there beyond just this anthropological exercise, then the audience is doing little more than looking at painstakingly costumed puppets yapping at one another in an Ikea showflat.


Andrew Field said...

Good to have you back Haydon. So let's kick this OFF shall we.

1) The National Theatre manifestly produces *the* widest selection of work produced by any single theatre in Britain.

Replace 'work' with 'plays' and you're absolutely right.

Form is as important as content, as you well know and it's no good being a thousand miles wide if you're half a metre deep.

2) It must be a bit of an albatross, really. And it somehow allows the NT’s choice of plays to be criticised in a way that, say, the Donmar or Almeida’s choices of plays just aren’t.

Well yes but you've answered your own question earlier on:

Other theatres don’t have the same number of stages or anything like the same level of funding. The NT is the only theatre which has the space and the money to do what it does.

The NT is the National Theatre and its funding, profile, building and everything else about it reflects its status as a national theatre. As a consequence it absolutely does have a responsibility to be more 'national' in scope than other theatres. A responsibility to encompass more, to accommodate more, to challenge and to inspire, to do things that only it can do with the funding and space and profile that it has.

Though I don't for a second agree with Nosheen's argument, it's fair enough to hold the NT to account in a way that you wouldn't another theatre.

3) Amardeep Sohi is a she, not a he.

Anonymous said...

The National turned the play down because they didn't feel it was that brilliant. Whatever Nottage's agent told her is a different matter.

Andrew Haydon said...

Good to have you back commenting, too. It's like old times :-)

Because 1) and 2) are huge issues - which I partly intended to cover in (part two) I'll incorporate those into it. However:

3) So she is. That'll teach me to guess rather than click through to author profiles. How embarrassing.

Although I'm pleased to note that "ImmyKhan" makes precisely the same mistake in the comment below mine at the Guardian original.

Andrew Haydon said...


Yes, another source just told me the same thing. I'm now rather regretting cutting the passage where I speculated wherther precisely that was the reason. Without knowing beforehand, it seemed needlessly bitchy to speculate having not read or seen the play.

Marginally annoying, really, as, in fact, it makes this defence seem almost too elaborate - having effectively tried to defend the NT while taking the premises of the accusation as fact.

Still, it'd have been a much shorter article if all I'd had to say was "The NT would definitely have staged this play if they'd thought it was good enough. End of."