By David Edgar
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Company: Out of Joint
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Tuesday 26th February 2008
This is a new play, dealing with the experience of becoming a British citizen. In a number of short scenes, we follow the difficulties and successes of a varied group of people, some who are taking a language class and integrating their citizenship training within that, and some who are studying individually. We also get to know their reasons for wanting citizenship, although I realise I’m completely unsure of the motivation of one of the most important characters in the play, Nasrim. She’s the hijab-wearing Muslim woman who finds great difficulty in adapting to the British approach to life, objecting to even looking at a picture of a cooked breakfast as it contains pork. She eventually makes a complaint against the teacher of the class, Emma, and succeeds in driving her out of that school, and possibly out of teaching altogether
This was one of the good aspects of the production – it didn’t try to preach or moralise about the rights and wrongs of any situation, but did its best to let the characters tell their stories and leave the audience to take from it what they would. At the time, I felt that Nasrim was sincere in her beliefs, but without more information on her point of view, other than her holy book says this, or her culture says that, I’m left feeling that her character is ultimately the loser, as she remains ignorant of other possibilities for relating to people. I’m also in the dark as to why she wanted citizenship in the first place, and therefore it’s hard to assess her responses. If she wanted greater freedom and equality, then she needed to learn that other people are free too, free to choose what they want to do. It’s difficult to balance the operation of a tolerant society when there are those within it who are intolerant of those liberties – and that applies as much to our politicians as it does to immigrants or existing citizens. Still, it obviously got us thinking, and that’s no bad thing.
To help the audience understand the new citizenship test, there were lots of information snippets through the play, more at the beginning and less later on as the characters developed and their situations took over the play. I did find some of the info stuff a bit boring. It was more like a lesson than a play at times. There was a screen along the back of the acting area, and a couple of times they used this to demonstrate the difference between the original citizenship manual “Life in the UK – A Journey to Citizenship”, and the second edition, which had been “simplified”. I suspect the excerpts used were meant to make a point, but I just found them confusing, apart from a couple of comparisons in the second set, which did at least make a small joke. It wasn’t always clear how the second version had been changed from the first, and so the effort was wasted on me.
Apart from the screen, there was only the acting space, eight actors, lots of chairs and a couple of tables. The actors carried off numerous parts really well, and as their stories started to emerge, I began to enjoy the performance. At first it was dry and rather dull, but there were some interesting observations. The personal stories gave me more of an insight into some of the difficulties faced by immigrants who don’t know English particularly well, and whose cultures do nothing to prepare them for ours. One chap was constantly teased at work by his colleagues, who took his test book and kept asking him questions and poking fun at him. But they were silenced when he turned out to know a lot about football. And when one woman got her citizenship certificate, she was finally able to negotiate a better deal from her partner, who had been treating her more like property than a person. The fact that incomers to this country even have to be told that it’s an offence to be violent towards their partner is a shocking indictment of the treatment of women worldwide, and one reason why I still consider our culture more advantageous than some on the planet. We’re not perfect, but at least we seem to have learned some valuable lessons; I hope we don’t unlearn them in trying to treat all other cultures as equal to ours.
We also attended the post-show discussion, but although there were some interesting comments, I didn’t learn more about the production than I’d already seen. Sadly, I didn’t think to ask what the title meant, so I’ve no idea how that relates to the play. On the whole I enjoyed it, but there were dull moments.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me