Tuesday 11 September 2007

The Racial Papers

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


Ian Shuttleworth said...

I think you've got hold of the wrong end of the stick as regards Julia Pascal's article. What you say I'm commending is what I'm sure she's actually doing; I think what's done her few favours is having allowed herself to be seconded to the Grauniad's sensationalist fill-the-blogs agenda. For Julia has a long and honourable record of addressing such problems and remaking plays excitingly and challengingly in the process: I'd cite her Dybbuk and Yiddish Queen Lear as prime examples. It's easy to read her article in the light of the tendency you've detected, but I'd argue that it's not an example of a mediocre talent aggrandising her own work and thoughts, but rather of a notable talent letting her guard down for a moment and allowing her work and thoughts to become grist to someone else's mill. That was the point of my comment to her entry.

As for "say what you like about Aleks Sierz’s school of In-yer-face theatre", I think your phrasing inadvertently says it all: it's the creature of its labeller rather than any of the writers or works thus labelled. I may start referring to it as fraggle theatre, grebo theatre or the like - those being labels every bit as factitious, coined by the NME for supposed schools of rock in the 1980s, none of which caught on.

Andrew Haydon said...

Consider me enlightened as regards Julia Pascal. "An example of a mediocre talent aggrandising her own work and thoughts" is exactly how it reads, so I'm pleased that it is not so.

As far as Sierz and labelling goes: I think the labeller has some input, but at the same time surely Sierz reacts to those plays in that way precisely because they absolutely refuse the kind of "issue-based" desultory treatment that Edgar uses. I don't think its possible to sum up Blasted as "a play about hotels/rape/war/baby-eating" whereas it is entirely possible to called Behzti "a play about sexual abuse in Sikh Temples" - indeed the most inaccurate part of that summary is calling it a play.

I think I got a bit sloppy in my argument toward the end (just the end, Andrew?). I might do a bit of revising later.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

"I don't think its possible to sum up Blasted as 'a play about hotels/rape/war/baby-eating' whereas it is entirely possible to called Behzti 'a play about sexual abuse in Sikh Temples'" - you seem to be assuming that "about" is defined solely in terms of narrative. Of course Blasted isn't "about" those things, more than superficially. Similarly and oppositely, the Hugh Hughes shows that you and Chris Goode got so little out of aren't "about" a rabbit and a floating island. In fact, speaking of Mr G., there's a fine example: Hippo World Guest Book is not "about" a web site. But nor is the point of Blasted its style; it is, I suppose, an instance of form following function.

PS I'm going to Julia Pascal's Merchant on Friday; wanna come?

Andrew Haydon said...

Without wishing to get bogged down in semantics and arguments about whether my shorthands work, I guess in my head there are plays "about" things and there are plays that "are" things. Some "about" plays are very good, and some "are" ones aren't. But I think that is the distinction I (abstractly) intended.

re Merchant - will have to check diary. Will email.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Moreover, Julia Pascal explicitly answered her own question three weeks before she even posed it: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a3358794-4c4f-11dc-b67f-0000779fd2ac.html

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this post. I have so much to say on this issue but sometimes it is hard to express myself without feeling like I'm being backed into a corner on any number of issues. Anyway, this thread seems to have moved on. I would have liked to have conversed with you about my experience of the play 'Behzti', (I am British Sikh and watched the play before it ended), but I couldn't locate your e-mail address. Anyway, cheers.


Andrew Haydon said...

I get e-mail alerts whenever someone posts here, so it's as good as - and I'm interested to hear what you have to say...

Anonymous said...

Hi --- I just came back to check the thread and noticed you had responded, thanks for that. I will try and put down my thoughts on some of the issues raised by your writing here if you don't mind. I just need to think a little to cut through to the kernel and articulate things properly (as there is a lot of hard husk around it all)


Anonymous said...

I’ll keep my comments general. If there is such a thing as Asian theatre in this country, a theatre that can be roughly aggregated as plays with themes relating to the British South Asian experience, written by British Asians, it seems to me to exist in a kind of soft tyranny, in which Arts Council ledgers are used as the benchmark for production, and a similarity of theme and form has become the stunting, stultifying norm. The numbing sub-mediocrity of naturalism, social realism all integral to the thrust of what is proffered (without irony) as ‘authenticity’. It demands obeisance, despite its self-righteousness, obviousness, banality, cliché, contempt for imagination. Theatre as an adjunct to social work, theatre that has a kind of strange Marxist-like insistence on its own innate righteousness. Theatre that is complicit in its own co-option by a section of the mainstream theatre establishment (see David Edgar) which is terrified of its own impotence and irrelevance, and crass in its hunger for controversy and ‘importance’. A theatre that seems incapable of how to address the innate ‘Gunga Din’ and ‘Mind Your Language’ implications of the form when writing for white people --- absolute falsity of language and situation, a bowing and scraping and prurient theatre, rejoicing in its own tokenism and serving up slop and pandering to the prejudices and ignorance of that audience. A self-satisfied, pompous theatre heady on its own imagined importance, eye-glazing in its predictability and utterly oblivious to itself. When plays full of rumbustious dance and the broadest comedy come along, despite their vulgarisms, I rejoice a little because at least it has a sign of impudent life, and is not written with a wagging instructive finger, and knows its froth is froth. But at least things are not too bad when you can identify what you have identified in this blog entry --- at least I know I am not imagining things, the judgments I have made are not based on some innate bias I have, and amongst other things (I hate to bring ethnicity into this), white theatre critics sometimes seem unable to make the judgments and say the things you have said here. You have no idea how good it was to read this post of yours.