By Richard Bean
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Venue: Olivier Theatre
Date: Tuesday 3rd March 2009
Set: dominating the stage at the start is a big rectangular block of boards. Actually, it’s a double-decker set of doors, with six across the top, and the two on the right hand side of the bottom row turned horizontal. I expected something like the top one opening up to become a stall or some such, and I wasn’t far off. In front of these doors there’s a bigger raised area of floorboards. To the right of that and round the front are the wide black floorboards, while on the left the stage seems to be bare – I could see the line of the revolve quite clearly.
Behind the doors, many of which are open at the start, a mesh fence spreads across the stage from wing to wing, with two openings, one on each side. Through the fence and the open doors we can see rails of clothes, presumably costumes, and possibly some of the props. A set of stairs runs up behind the doors. There’s a drum kit to the right of the doors and some other musical instruments in that corner, and a red plastic chair, standard issue, centre stage. The whole effect is stripped down, as if the production is laying something bare.
Before the start, the cast gradually drift onto the rear of the stage, though one chap does come and sit on the red plastic chair. He’s working on his laptop and then he puts it aside and looks at some papers – photos perhaps, or artwork. Then there’s an announcement, telling the cast to assemble on stage, and we’re into the action for real.
Or not, as it happens. The play uses a framing device; all these people are at a detention centre, either working there or potential immigrants. They’ve been devising a play about the English response to successive waves of immigrants since the Romans, and they’re just about to give us their dress rehearsal. First though, the director, Philippa, gives some notes, and this gives us a chance to meet some of the “real” characters, as well as prepping us very nicely for some of the jokes, particularly the “fucking _____” gag, which worked particularly well, and the “wagon” joke, which only worked because it didn’t.
The director’s priceless pearls are regularly interrupted by an annoying man who turns out to be a Palestinian, Taher. He’s unpopular with everyone, and is banned from mentioning Israel – I sensed the backstory involved a lot of aggravation during the rehearsal process. Despite the interruptions, and the shock discovery that the “Imam” has shaved off his beard the night before the performance (he stuck it all back together to make a fake one), the dress rehearsal goes ahead as planned.
It’s at this point that the multimedia aspect of the production becomes apparent. We’ve been told that Elmar, the chap with the laptop, has done some animations for their play (he regularly won a silver something-or-other in Azerbaijan), and these are projected onto the block of doors and the back wall throughout the play to add to the story. The first section deals with the original Brits, living their primitive lives, and being taken over by the Romans, who kill the man and ravish the woman (they didn’t have a lot of original Brits to work with). Then the Roman soldiers are killed by the Angles and Saxons, and it’s all much the same thing. This is all done to a jolly song, while the animation shows these successive invaders running up behind the previous lot, and then the next lot of actors come on to hew and slash, before shagging the woman. As the dead bodies mount up, the animation shows them filling the screen. We both liked this use of multimedia from the word go, as it didn’t distract from the performance at all, just gave it a more immediate effect as well as adding to the humour.
This quick series of invaders slows right down when a town crier announces from the upper storey that the French king has kicked the Protestants out of his kingdom, so there will be a lot of “frogs” coming London’s way. As the Huguenots are skilled cloth manufacturers, the local weavers are soon up in arms about the detrimental effect they’re having on local workers, while the French build themselves a church, and plan to civilise the English. This church, and the subsequent synagogue and mosque, are drawn in animation, with the appropriate symbol appearing physically above the roof. There’s the beginning of an eternal love story which echoes through the ages when Norfolk Danny, a silk weaver in Spitalfields, is persuaded to give shelter to a Frenchwoman, Camille, and her brother, also a weaver. The situation gets ugly when the weavers guild find this out, and when they interrupt Danny’s coitus to smash his loom, he stabs one of the men who attacks Camille, leading to his eventual hanging (and the “wagon” joke). This was shown on the screens behind, a good use of the film media.
Meanwhile, another set of characters have been introduced to us who will also echo down the years. The lower horizontal door slid forwards and becomes a bar, a table and chairs are brought on to the left of the stage, and we’re in the generic pub, with Fred Ridgeway as the landlord Laurie, Sophie Stanton as the barmaid Ida, and Trevor Laird as the pub regular Rennie, latterly from Barbados. Ida is the source of the “fucking ______” jokes, with the blank being filled with “frogs”, “Micks”, “yids” and a few other derogatory terms. The humour was in Sophie’s delivery of the lines (excellent), especially in the second half, when she holds a long pause after the “fucking”, gets the laugh anyway, and then compounds it by adding “yanks”. If we hadn’t guessed before, we knew at that point that we were up to the Second World War.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This first time it’s the “frogs” she’s upset about. Rennie tells us a number of French folk have moved in above him, and provides the insider’s view of life with the French (too unsavoury to repeat here). He’s an unlucky fellow, because the same thing happens when the Irish turn up (keep pigs), the Jews, and the Asians. (The Irish don’t build their own church, by the way; they have to worship in secret at “art appreciation classes”.)
Anyway, things come to a head when war breaks out between Britain and France. The leader of the French community changes his accent and starts talking colloquial English, and then I think they all move to Redbridge(?), leaving room for the new incomers, the Irish (but I might have got that wrong).
When the Irish arrive, Ida is now the granddaughter of a French immigrant, and we get to see how these groups have assimilated themselves, and laugh at the funny side. Later on, this same point is made about the other groups, but I think it came across most strongly this first time, possibly because that early tranche of immigrants was too long ago for anyone to get upset about now, unlike some of the later groups. The cycles repeat themselves, with the previous set of immigrants complaining about the new lot, and the only variation I could see was that the English Jews were equally as unhappy about the Jewish incomers as the non-Jewish residents.
The final group are the Muslims, and here the tension rises a bit as some of the Muslim community become militant, and start aggressively attacking the parts of British culture they don’t like (most of it, from what I could see). The play does show that not all Muslims take this hard-line stance; there are clear references to the Wahibi sect as the cause of the problem, and the Imam who arrives to take over from his more tolerant predecessor has two hooks for hands. This is the final wave of immigration they can show, and brings us up-to-date, with a pair of twins being born to a Pakistani man and a British woman from an adulterous relationship. The idea of the children, especially the boy, being our hope for the future was floated, but couldn’t be resolved within the scope of this piece.
The overall idea of the play within the play was that love conquers all, and can bring disparate and even warring communities together. Despite this happy ending, the context play ends with the guard handing out letters to the immigrants to tell them if they’ve made it into Britain. Some do, some don’t, and some don’t get a letter. This had a sobering effect, and I found myself, in the final moment, recognising that the director can walk out of the “detention centre” and go wherever she likes, while even those who have been accepted by Immigration will be limited in what they can do to begin with. Those turned down have few, if any, choices.
I didn’t find the play particularly racist, but then I don’t have the sensibilities of some people or groups, nor a readiness to take offence. I don’t know how I would have reacted to jokes about the Scots or Welsh, mind you. I do think this play had a specific scope – to show the effects of immigration on English culture and society over a long period, using a particular area, Spitalfields, to focus the drama, and then widening the focus to show us the reality of today. I appreciated the humour, and I suspect some of the critics were taking it (and themselves?) too seriously, as some folk did with Till Death Do Us Part, thinking that Alf Garnett was speaking up for the racists when he was actually a figure of fun. I’m certainly happier that plays like this can be staged, especially at such a high-profile venue, and I only wish more writers with different experiences and points of view would take up the challenge of showing us these subjects from another perspective. We can only hope.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me