For some reason everything theatre-related written over the last few days seems to have been somehow related to race. The Guardian today carries an interview with Blake Morrison regarding his new version of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. It is interesting to read, primarily because his is not the first reworking that the play has had recently. The other version was written by a well-known and well-respected playwright, commissioned by a leading London theatre, and has yet to see the light of day due to a very long line of very cold feet. This other reworking, you see, mischievously re-imagines the sex-striking wives of Athens as the fabled 72 virgins promised to Jihadist martyrs. As knockabout fun goes, it is certainly aiming at far harder targets than Morrison’s bland-sounding peacenik effort. Still, Morrison’s gets a nice write-up, so that’s okay.
Sticking with Islam, curiously yesterday’s Mail on Sunday carried a lengthy, self-authored profile of female Muslim playwright Yasmin Whittaker-Khan . The piece is apparently an edited version of an original article published in Index on Censorship. Presumably in that publication, vast photographs of its author and her mother did not dominate the pages (an effect faithfully approximated on the Mail’s website version of the text). In that context it also probably it read less like a pointed attack on Islam and more like part of a wider, more reasoned debate on religious censorship in theatre. The Daily Mail, after all, has an oddly ambivalent attitude toward the freedom of the arts when it comes to offended religious sensibilities. Yet it probably goes a good deal further than the Guardian when supporting attacks on, um, let’s say Islam or Sikhism within plays (although, to be fair, Melanie Philips offered a surprisingly astute defence of Jerry Springer - The Opera at the time of the furore - albeit introduced very much in her own inimitable style).
Parts of Ms Whittaker-Khan’s life are undeniably tragic and she is undoubtedly brave for continuing to highlight areas of Muslim culture that she reveals to be objectionable. However, reading the descriptions of the plays (and I realise this is no way to experience them), they sounded like the very worst sort of theatre. Particularly telling is the following passage:
“Another of my plays, Bells, attracted national press coverage. This play, which I am now hoping might be made into a film, exposed the secret, seedy world of mujra, or courtesan clubs, a centuries-old tradition in Pakistan that has emerged in Britain in a bastardised form and is now growing through sex trafficking.”
Firstly one is struck by “which I am now hoping might be made into a film”. More worrisome, though, is the fact that it is a “play” which goes on to be described in largely documentary terms. Plays which “expose secret, seedy worlds” in my experience often do so at the expense of pretty much anything else that might make a play watchable or indeed, uh, theatrical. Behzti, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play, which exposed the secret, seedy world of sexual abuse in Sikh temples (also, interestingly, commissioned by Birmingham Rep), is one of the worst published plays I have read in my life - from the leaden naturalistic dialogue, the negligible yet clichéd characterisation and the naïve way that she specifies how the stage should be laid out (“different parts of the stage should represent different rooms” - astounding), through to the abysmal, clanging melodrama of the plot - which might as well have been devised by barely literate Key Stage 3 pupils in Downham Market whose only experience of drama was Hollyoaks (and I know whereof I speak). The whole play would have sunk utterly without trace were it not for the disgrace of its being rioted off stage.
It is hard to resist the sense that this is part of an ongoing trend. And a deeply unhealthy one. This article by David Edgar (who, as the writer of Playing With Fire, provided me with one of the dullest issue-based nights in a theatre that I have ever endured) makes for depressing reading. Look, for example, at the way he dispatches the plays he mentions by issue (in contrast, say what you like about Aleks Sierz’s school of In-yer-face theatre, but look at the way he describes plays: with adjectives, ideas and feelings).
The concern is threefold. Firstly - briefly - it is worrying that this material is so frequently seized upon by those with agendas that rather tend to feed on portrayals that could easily be seen to demonise Muslim or Sikh communities. Yes of course we want a theatre culture that will fearlessly confront any issue it likes. And it would be lovely if we lived in a country where either a) some people didn’t tend to wildly extrapolate that because one A does Z in a play, all As are Z-ers, or Z-ists, or whatever. But, writing about Muslim men people-trafficking at precisely the same time as the BNP are saying exactly the same thing is a difficult circle to square. It is perhaps this contrarian positioning that gives it a spurious “edginess”.
Secondly - and frankly, of more pressing concern to theatre-writers - these writers frequently appear to be encouraged to produce what amounts to emotional pornography - moreover: authentic, “urban” or exotic emotional pornography. And lastly, and worse, they appear to be encouraged to do this in a very narrow, restrictive, shallow sort of naturalism, which utterly refuses any use of language, metaphor, or most of the other things that actually make theatre vital.
As a disclaimer, I should at this point reiterate that I haven’t seen or read any of Yasmin Whittaker-Khan’s plays (although I shall be finding copies and reading them ASAP). A quick Google reveals that the plays she discusses in the Mail piece are essentially her “issue” plays, and there are a couple of others with less immediately apparent subjects.
Another disclaimer: I don’t have a problem with naturalism, per se. Or with plays that offer a take on what could be construed as an “issue”. A couple of examples: Roy Williams’s excellent Fallout could be described simply as a play about black-on-black gun crime. In fact it goes so far beyond that that to so describe it would be like calling Hamlet a play about Dane-on-Dane poisoning. Similarly, Duncan Macmillan’s published oeuvre could be boiled down to being “a play about a suspected paedophile” and “a play about a disruptive pupil” - in both cases what is actually striking about the plays is Macmillan’s deft gift for structure and form; the games that he plays with expectation and convention; the language used.
The problem is that for so many unfathomable reasons, somewhere down the line it appears to have become accepted wisdom that it is easier to sell a play which can be neatly packed as dealing with an issue and summarised in a sentence. And some places still seem to commission work on this basis. One thing I hadn’t really identified as a trend through the things I saw in Edinburgh this year - and indeed saw advertised - was how few of them seemed to be “issue” plays.
The last race-based bit of writing was this wretched article from Friday’s Guardian theatre blog concerning the forthcoming Arcola production of The Merchant of Venice. As I noted when reviewing the Globe’s excellent recent production, revisionism is way too popular when it comes to Shakespeare’s more problematic ideas. I notice that Shuttleworth has already commended the idea of staging one’s own wrestling with the text in the notes following the item*. Fair enough. My review of Rupert Goold’s bold interventions into Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus last year should make it clear that I am all for experimentation with and evisceration of classic texts. It is Ms Pascal’s suggestion that “Shakespeare's play remains so problematic that I wonder if we should stage it at all” that really grates. Not least as it comes from someone about to do just that. I’m also troubled by her textual analysis that leads her to believe, “[she] still has to face the decision of how to stage the cutting of the pound of flesh”. Still, I’m sure in future we can look forward seeing Merchant set on the West Bank with all the nasty old Venetians replaced by Palestinians to give our already troubled liberal consciences something to really fret about. Or maybe, a production of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta set on board the trains to Auschwitz, just to hammer home the idea that it’s, like, really bad to hate Jews an' shit.
*Edit: see comments
Review of Pascal's Merchant of Venice here