Wednesday 24 February 2010

Off the Endz - Royal Court

Bola Agbaje’s Off the Endz is the sort of play that almost killed off the Court under Ian Rickson. Essentially, it’s a play by a member of an identifiable minority (which can be pretty much anything other than white, male, heterosexual or middle class) writing something that purports to be unique to the experience of that minority. It smacks of condescension and is a theatrical cul-de-sac. For the writer and for theatre. Primarily, because of the form this sort of work takes. It is grounded in “authenticity”. We’re asked to believe that the characters are speaking precisely like people do in the real world (they’re not, but never mind). Actors are cast to look exactly like how they’d look in the real world. The sofa, telly, speakers and kitchen sodding sink, ffs, are, like, the exact same ones they’d have in real life. Forget poetry, metaphor, style or form. And forget that despite the fact that this *is* a work of imagination, it’s doing its utmost to pretend it’s fo’ real, bitch.

All that said, even if a play does belong to this terrible, misguided school, it can still be good. Exciting. Interesting. Moving. Intelligent. Funny. Off the Endz isn’t good. At all. In fact it is the longest hour-and-a-quarter I remember spending in a theatre. At the end I’d have been prepared to swear it had overrun by a full hour, bruv.

Let’s start by getting the good bits out of the way. It has some quite funny lines, and Ashley Walters’s performance as the staggeringly self-centred, misogynist would-be gangsta is worryingly believable. Walters also has a pretty impressive cock, which one gets to glimpse briefly (causing by far the biggest reaction in the audience of the night). In fact both leading males spend a fair amount of time with their shirts off, both packing physiques which rather reduce my desire to criticise the play at all.

And that’s about it on the positive side. Ultz’s set is as irritating as it is inevitable. The chic modern interiors are represented by, well chic modern interiors, while grim urban exteriors are represented by... You get the picture. Scene changes are performed under UV lighting so we can see luminous graffiti sprayed about the walls of the set. Well done. Very good. Very urban. Very evocative, man.

And then we get to the muthaf***in' text itself.

And it’s so bewilderingly awful that it’s hard to know where to start.

I mean, there’s the plot: it is hard to imagine a more tediously predictable trajectory. David comes out of prison, goes to see his ex, Sharon, who’s now pregnant and making an apparently nice life with David’s best mate Kojo. Then he goes to see Kojo at work and reveals himself to be a bit of a dick with the ladies. Anyway, the big crux is, he needs to get a job or some shit, but he don’t want that, and so quickly decides that he’ll be best off dealing “drugs” – which “drugs” remain unspecified throughout. He immediately manages source a massive supply and sets up as a dealer. Meanwhile, Kojo is struggling to pay debts, while Sharon turns out to be somewhat storecard-happy. Then Kojo looses his job...

Basically, one of them is nice and tries to do the right thing and the other one isn’t especially nice and doesn’t try to do the right thing, while justifying himself with the sort of swagger, self-importance and special-pleading that the Court hasn’t seen since Jimmy Porter started blaming everyone else for his problems in 1956.

Agbaje is conducting two critiques here: with one hand she’s painting a bleak picture of attempts at an aspirational life in the workforce during a recession – all maxed-out credit cards and wage-slavery, while with the other hand she’s conducting a callow investigation into street crime, drug-dealing, guns and gangs. And in the world of this play, that’s it. Binary choice. It’s so simple, it’s almost like a parable. It’s the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. One does idly wonder, given the obvious desire for *authenticity* exhibited elsewhere, whether plays about “people-with-jobs” should be written by “artists”, but let’s ignore that for now. It has an interesting effect. By combining a bleak view of the struggle of life under capitalism with the suggestion that to live outside it can only mean committing to a life of amoral violence, Off the Endz winds up preaching the same message as medieval Christianity: “life is shit, but you’d better not fuck about or terrible things will happen to you”. It is interesting to note that the author’s first thank you in the printed text of the play is to “Almighty God”. One wonders whether the unspoken, real message of this play is that there is a better life in the next world, so go joylessly about your business and commit no sins. Because that’s what it looked like from where I was sitting.

There isn’t even any ambiguity. Agbaje uses guns to make her moral point in the same way as the street gangs in her play use them to demand respect. Kojo strays a little bit and gets shot, but not fatally. David, having refused salvation (in the form of a train ticket to Nottingham and the ‘start of a new life’ – the opportunity to be re-born?) is last seen (according to the text), being stalked by the gang who shot Kojo (this last stage direction may have been cut in production – I couldn’t see any armed youths from my seat on the far left hand side of row E – but that’s not to say they weren’t there – my view of the left hand side of back of the stage was somewhat restricted). The implication is clear, having rejected the chance to toil with his head down, he is damned.

It is by making this a play specifically about race rather than class, that Agbaje causes the biggest problems. Given the narrative, given lines like: “When the stock markets crashed and all the banks were losing money – how many black faces did you see on TV? How many of our stories did they show?” and “Life is ten times harder for us” [my italics], it suddenly feels a whole lot more uncomfortable criticising its outlook than that of merely a dull play with an antique morality. By invoking “them” and “us”, it seems almost like it’s attempting to reserve the right to deflect criticism with: “You don’t know, you weren’t there”. Well, theatre is theatre, and this isn’t good theatre. As for the “authenticity”, I defer to a black theatre-maker of my acquaintance who said he hadn’t seen a play with clichéd, cardboard cut-out black characters that had offended him so deeply in years. That’ll do me.

In short, this is how the “authenticity” pays off: by creating a simplistic morality tale about a good person and a bad person, then filling each with clichés about “black people”, Bola Agbaje has written a play that would have been condemned as utterly racist if it had been written by a white person.

[all profanities and “authentic” words lifted from the text, except "motherfucking", which is taken from the title of the earlier Royal Court play CrazyBlack Muthaf***in'self]

N.B. For further reading, I refer you to this excellent article by Lindsay Johns.