Friday 13 February 2009

England People Very Nice - National Theatre

[Written for]

Richard Bean’s new play in the National’s Olivier Theatre is a very long, Epic-theatre comedy about racism. It kicks off in a detention centre where a disparate group of asylum seekers are putting on a devised piece about how England, specifically Bethnal Green, has welcomed successive waves of immigrants throughout its history. It is purportedly their play – albeit performed with the framing device removed – which forms vast majority of the show. Think Forty Years On meets Oh, What a Lovely War via Love Thy Neighbour and ‘Allo ‘Allo and you’ll be on the right tracks.

After a quick vignette to deal with the first millennia or so of British history, the piece starts in earnest with the arrival of French Huguenots – thrown out of their own country by the Catholics. They are followed a couple of hundred years/twenty minutes later by the rural Irish Catholics escaping the potato famine. They are followed by Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms.

Bean quickly sets up a kind of repeating pattern, the way that the French are initially received with dismay and alarm which escalates to ugly violence before they gradually become more and more integrated into the community, building churches and houses, marrying into the indigenous community and finally adopting English accents when the British go to war with France. When the Irish turn up, we see them express their outrage at these new immigrants. Similarly, when the Russian Jews arrive, the locals are once again initially resistant and prominent British Jews – wealthy conservatives like Rothschild – despairing of Russian Jewish anarchists. Having dealt with three hundred or so years in the first half, the second half offers a more detailed trot through to the present day, looking at Indian “lascar” seamen from the Merchant Navy and the growth of the Bangladeshi community around Spitalfields.

To maintain a bit of narrative drive beyond a simple historical sketch comedy, Bean centres much of the action around a pub with a kind of eternal landlady (Sophie Stanton – whose cries of “Facking Frogs!”, “Facking Micks!”, “Facking Yids!” herald the arrival of each new group) and her perky daughter (Michelle Terry), who at each point in history falls into bed with one of the immigrants – always played by Sacha Dhawan – in an ongoing romance through time.

Nick Hytner’s staging is characteristically assured, although given the huge rambling, rambunctious feel of the piece, his tendency toward polish has perhaps over-smoothed here, making it feel like a very West End take on rough theatre. The performances are strong, with a large multi-ethnic cast playing every wave of immigrants and the “indigenous” population, thus we have Elliot Levy playing a Palestinian Christian, black actors playing members of the National Front, and Asian actors playing Russian Jews.

The script is essentially a tissue of racial epithets combined with some broad, stereotypical portrayals of the various groups of minorities. It’s pretty robust stuff, but is presented in such a way that makes it feel silly to take offence. This is, after all, as multi-ethnic a cast as you could wish for all mucking about and doing silly accents together in front of a similarly mixed audience. On the other hand, the play’s Brechtian scope and structure – a kind of Mother Courage and The Other – suggest that we are watching something designed to illustrate a point. This underlying message possibly requires a bit more unpacking, however.

The way that the plot unfolds, with its focus on love being the answer to all society’s ills, seems to back up the claim made by various characters that immigrant communities are finally accepted and part of English society when they have started intermarrying – until then, by implication, they are aliens. Another, more depressing, reading is available which suggests that immigrants are finally integrated into English society when they are racist about the next wave of immigrants. Bean doesn’t have a lot of time for the conflicting claims of various world religions. Repeatedly espoused is the maxim “The only heaven you’ll ever have is here.” (Answered with the oft-repeated running gag, “What, Bethnal Green?”)

It is interesting that Bean doesn’t really reflect on the qualitative differences between white Christian immigrants from foreign countries and those between different world religions – more traditional wings of which favour marrying within their faith – and immigrants with different skin colours. The play doesn’t seem to have much time for multi-culturalism, in the sense of separate communities maintaining their own ways of life and not joining in with the more general mongrel melting pot that constitutes the “English”. It reads mostly as an argument for integration – the briskly improvised invention of the Chicken Tikka Masala can be seen as an example of this process at its best, with both sides adapting and benefiting from cultural exchange.

It is interesting to note the somewhat uneven treatment of the various immigrant cultures. The French are dispatched quickly as stock stereotypes. The Irish contingent are shown indulging in every behaviour of which they stand accused by the bigots – pigs under the arm, green suits, alcoholism, wife beating and incest – up to the point where a one-eyed baby is born out of incestuous union. The portrayal of the Jews is warm and affectionate, as is the portrayal of the Indian “lascars”. Less sympathetic and affectionate is the portrayal of Brick Lane’s current Bangladeshi community. The older generation is depicted as likeable enough, but the youths turn from violent, confrontational drug-dealers and muggers to becoming radicalised Islamists in the wake of 9/11.

Sadly, this is as far as history has got, and Bean does not indulge in clairvoyance. It is interesting that at the close of the play, the eternal pub landlady, her Irish/Jewish daughter and the daughter’s Muslim lover – with his extended family in tow – decide to decamp from Bethnal Green to Redbridge (a running joke throughout).

As such, the end of the play feels half like an apocalyptic warning: Run! This time it’s different! The Islamists are coming to get us! – And half like a case being well rested: If we learn from the lessons of history, we can see that we have absolutely nothing to worry about. From what has gone before, it does seem as if Bean’s outlook is pessimistic. That Islamic Fundamentalism is somehow more threatening than Irish Catholicism, French Protestantism or Russian Jewish Anarchism. Indeed, he breaks his falling-in-love structure to demonstrate the point. Radical Islamists, he suggests, cannot fall in love with a non-Muslim. I’m sure a Radical Islamist would agree, but it seems a shame that Bean allows their propaganda to derail his rather sweet thesis that integration is not only possible but also inevitable.

As plays go, it’s moderately entertaining – hugely so, if you’re a fan of crude humour – although its three-hour length outstays its welcome. It’s got a lot of jokes, mostly of the broad variety – swearing plays a key role here. There are some sweet sentimental moments – a misty eyed cockerney knees-up in the pub during WWII is unashamed rose-tinted nostalgia – but overall the noisy humour and the cavalcade of racist characters and mob violence makes for a strangely dispiriting evening.

Photographs by Johan Persson - left to right: SACHA DHAWAN (Mushi), PAUL CHEQUER (Hugo), MICHELLE TERRY (Deborah)


Anonymous said...

Will you be posting your review of Shun-kin by Complicitie,

I'd like to talk about it

Alison Croggon said...

Gad. It sounds horrible!

Andrew Haydon said...

J.H. - My Shun-kin review is here. Feel free too engage with it here...

Anonymous said...

Hello Andrew,

I’ve been trying to find books detailing the people and moments within British Theatre over the last couple of years. There haven’t been any really, so I’ve printed off some blogs in their entirety and read them back to back.

Since seeing Shun Kin, I’ve been trying to pin the qualities in which it and McBurney’s work is somehow different from theatre in England that surrounds it. I can’t quite place these.

I liked the way it felt so personal. That the work was less about Shun Kin and about himself, spending time with him self and qualities of being alone. In the general press there were remarks about devices or ways of movement he has used in the past, suggesting that in their re-use he had run out of ideas.

There was the use of devices like when Shun Kin kicks her servant only for other actors to take the place of the servant being kicked, the actors moving in a circuit only to change at each kick, as seen in Mnemonic, or the spatial games as in A Dissapearing Number. Unusually, his device of introducing the evening with a false narrator, only for the show to go in a completely opposite direction wasn’t there.

I enjoyed that the work was less explosive than usual and that he is entering a later stage of his career. These repetitions of devices acquire meaning in his work within the narrative of the play and the narrative of the director, like hearing the same chords in a piece of music, only for them to change by the sound that surrounds them. I thought of the minimalist composers John Adams and Steve Reich, late paintings by Rembrandt and drinking aged liquor.

The moment I loved most, was at the beginning where after lining against the back of the stage, the wall starts to move back imperceptibly with the actors slipping into the darkness. Small and precise details that mean so much.

I read about him being a visual director, but his work differs very much from directors or companies that are called visual or even physical. I’d like to replace the terms visual and physical for him with animal. There is something about his senses, the way the characters sniff each other, the smell and sight of dust as its blown off an old book and the strangest voices imaginable. Some other directors have this animal quality, but McBurney is unusual in that this instinct is matched by some very accurate and considered thought process.

Maybe his work affects me because I feel a lack in certain areas of theatre, when I read a Caryl Churchill play for example I feel this mental dissection, which I never get in the performance, in venues such as the Royal Court. I also find work generally billed as visual or physical so mentally unconsidered, in terms of narrative and intent.

The Barbican judging the effects of the economy and I don’t think in future seasons serious work like this will be able to come over, this makes me a little sad.

As venues such as the Young Vic, National, Royal Court have dedicated facilities to forward the way they see theatre to young and mid-scale creatives, the Barbican needs some way of transferring the qualities and influence of the directors it works with to British theatre at this level in a meaningful way.

Anonymous said...

Well, I said I'd state publicly if I changed my mind once I'd seen the thing, and now I've seen it, and... I have to admit, the protesters kinda have a point.

Not about racism as such, at least not in the way that they mean: as you've remarked elsewhere, Andrew, Richard Bean is an equal-opportunities piss-taker, and certainly as a fellow Irishman I can't imagine that Keith Kinsella's outrage was anything but confected in order to make the complaints look less than entirely Bangladeshi-Muslim-centred.

But as one character in the play - and, tellingly, a BNP member - remarks, it's not about skin colour any more, but culture. Bean's target is Islamism, and he isn't very good or very diligent at distinguishing it from Islam per se.

Islamism isn't the subject of more than trace levels of piss-taking in the play; it's the subject of hostility. Granted, it's not the only extremism shown growing, as far-right British nationalism also gets some focus; but the latter's growing hold is given, if not sympathy, certainly some understanding, whereas no remotely comparable approach is taken to the growth of Wahhabism and the like.

It wouldn't have been that hard to show younger Muslims perceiving a lack of rigour in their antecedents' practices, but instead what we're shown is bigmouthed youth simply dissing their elders and booming about "protecting our territory". The appearance of the doubly hook-handed Wahhabi imam is clearly meant to be a cartoon, but when his portrayal becomes an actual cartoon, an animation spouting lines of offensiveness and hatred, it serves to remind us that cartoons aren't by definition funny, and can in fact be instruments of hatred themselves.

I don't think "hatred" is putting it too strongly. More than once I felt myself on the verge of walking out, and all that kept me in my seat was the desire to be able to discuss it afterwards from a position of having seen it all.

Another problem leading to an imbalanced portrayal of Islam is that for much of the second act even the principal "good Muslim", as it were, Mushi, is shown being driven by a sense of religious commission to sire twins and give one to the mosque. Although little explicit comment is made on it, the subtext is that it's a pernicious delusion, and his redemption (so to speak) comes when he frees himself from the idea and breaks with the mosque with which he has been involved for decades. Yes, this break is explained in terms of the extremism of the new imam, but there's an untidiness of connotation there.

It all, for me, devalues the attention paid to love throughout what has gone before: it seems to me to suggest that love and intermarriage are the greatest tool in the box, or perhaps the strongest weapon in the arsenal, of integration/assimilation, rather than it being the end and integration the means.

I have to say, there wasn't the slightest harbinger of this in the first half; throughout the interval I was as confident as ever that the protesters were, as I said earlier in this thread, earnest people missing the point that it's about them in ways other than they think. But the second half left me deeply disturbed, and I don't think that feeling's going to lift for some time. Which is handy at least, because I'm told I'll need something extrinsic to keep me going through Madame De Sade when I see it tomorrow.