As I type, I have just heard an interviewer ask Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom whether we should perhaps try to understand the mentality of those who would attack us; Mr Shalom responded with a curt, “No way!” That’s after I had returned home from the press night of a show (reviewed next issue) which includes a running joke about a South American who, having overstayed his visa, panics whenever he hears police sirens in London. Perhaps not the most tactful of gags, three days after the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.
When Out Of Joint’s production of Robin Soans’ verbatim play Talking To Terrorists began its tour in April, I made the decision to hold over reprinting reviews until its London run. This was a bad call, since virtually every title reviewed it early on tour, although most if not all of them revisited it at the Royal Court last month. Now that both waves of reviews are included in this issue, you can see that what’s interesting is the difference, not between the early reviews and the London ones, but between the London reviews filed before the 7 July bombings and those filed afterwards. It becomes harder to accept without question the assertion of “an ex-Secretary of State” (as in OJO’s previous verbatim piece, David Hare’s The Permanent Way, no characters are named in Soans’ play, but this is plainly Mo Mowlam) that “Talking to terrorists is the only way to beat them”, easier to empathise with “Another ex-Secretary of State” (Norman Tebbit) that “If you have the responsibility of protecting people, you have to be ruthless.” Which is good: theatre should make us question. Soans’ play (which I saw before the bombings) succeeded in humanising Tebbit for me, as Richard Norton-Taylor’s Bloody Sunday did with regard to Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.
And, the question returns again and again in these days, what if the terrorists don’t want to talk? Well, then we talk to those around them: in Soans’ piece, the Palestinian schoolgirl, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, the young men in a Luton mosque, people who have no connection themselves with terrorism but for whatever reason may bear a closer proximity to it and its practitionersor its effects. We talk, and more to the point, we listen. That’s where too many of my countrymen in Northern Ireland always fall down: they think talking means hectoring.
So often in the last few weeks my thoughts have gone back to my homeland, where I haven’t even set foot in five years. I’ve recalled sitting in English class in school in the centre of Belfast, more curious about the effects of an incendiary bomb on the warehouse across the street than about the discreet theatrical evangelism being practised by teacher Robin Glendinning (who himself had given up a burgeoning political career for playwriting). I’ve recalled the low-level culture shock when I crossed the Irish Sea to university in England, when it took me pretty much the entirety of my first term to get used to not presenting myself for a body search on entering department stores; and I see the bag searches beginning now in London, and I resent them. I resent that a state of affairs I had left behind, and which then in any case atrophied, in Northern Ireland, should now have caught up with me here. And I resent the people responsible for it, who are not solely the perpetrators of the attacks but all of us from the top down who allow our culture to change in this way. “When they seek to change our country or our way of life by these methods, we will not be changed,” declared our Prime Minister on 7 July – our Prime Minister who has overseen the erosion of habeas corpus, of the presumption of innocence, of freedom of movement, of basic rules of natural justice, of the European Convention on Human Rights and now appears to see nothing wrong with an explicit shoot-to-kill policy on otherwise ordinary streets. But what has theatre to do with all this? It has its place. Put aside my shrill litany of headline issues, and it’s fundamentally a matter of culture. Of how we live.
Talking To Terrorists includes not only views of what one might call ambivalent instances – Kurds in Turkey, Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories – but devotes much of the second act to “an ex-ambassador” (Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan) recounting his discovery of the Uzbek régime’s torture and suppression of dissidents, and his attempts to get Britain to take some official notice. This potentially broadens the play’s scope by implicitly introducing the notion of state terrorism. The reasons given by Whitehall mandarins for not condemning Uzbek conduct, and for continuing to accept information gained by that regime’s methods of torture, are that the information is useful and Uzbek co-operation in general crucial to the global war on terror, but this on its own doesn’t seem to me to be enough to warrant the material’s inclusion. It strikes me, rather, as deliberately counterposing the methods of dissident terrorist groups and those of state machinery, of showing how hard it can sometimes be to distinguish between the two. It also shows how alluring can be the reasoning of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and “if we didn’t do it, someone else would”, and the creep of a culture whereby everything becomes tainted.
It’s a matter of culture. And theatre, by showing us to ourselves at a different angle, encourages us to question. I’ve quoted before now the view that theatre doesn’t do this by getting to the right sort of people, but by getting to the wrong sort and turning them into the right sort. I recall a remark by Nelson Mandela to the effect that you don’t achieve peace by talking only to your friends. If we are to call ourselves better than those who seek to demonise us, then let’s be better, not simply more efficient at being the same. Let us question. Let us talk. Let us seek other ways. Of course theatre in itself can’t win this struggle. But, as it did in the latter part of the last century in a range of manifestations from Boal to Havel, it can serve to keep alive states of mind in which some kind of viable ending is possible. Talking to terrorists is the only way to beat them.
Of course, we have to be willing to keep ourselves open to question
as well. How’s this for an absurd leap? I think that openness
is almost entirely missing from the reception given to Some Girls Are
Bigger Than Others. It seemed to me that pretty much every reviewer,
whether or not they were the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally
vulgar – sorry, whether or not their formative years were informed by the
music of The Smiths – was implicitly evaluating Morrissey and Marr’s songs
as part and parcel of a particular kind of Englishness, a particular set
of values that would allow such a show as this only so much latitude before
the material began to look as absurd as a vicar in a tutu. Seriously
challenge those critical preconceptions, and it was a case of panic in
the streets of London. Some admonished the show’s Anonymous Society
creators, “You just haven’t earned it yet, baby”; some grew tired of the
non-linear, impressionistic form of the show and proclaimed “That joke
isn’t funny anymore”; some simply used it to bang on again about a personal
fixe (stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before).
But for me, this night has opened my eyes precisely because it did take the material out of that safety zone; as I argue in my FT review, it Europeanised Morrissey’s work (a prospect at which he might balk). Even the video footage projected throughout the evening seemed to me to engage with the material in a certain way, as if The Smiths’ most famous promo shorts had been shot not by Derek Jarman as they were, but by Terence Davies. Of course, I could be entirely wrong, and breaking my self-imposed rule about not duplicating shows I’ve reviewed on the main pages in order simply to try and claw back some position of dignity or plausibility. Well, I wonder. If dignity had been my aim, after all, would I have indulged in such a fanboy trait of profligate title- and lyric-quoting in these two paragraphs?
Maybe Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others is nothing but a mess. There are those who reckon Shoreditch Madonna is likewise, and I tend to agree with them. In a panel discussion with Rebecca Lenkiewicz just after the show’s opening, I spoke about its sprawl and untidiness; she responded, in as many words, “Well, I wanted to write a mess.” I thought, OK, we’re agreed about that, where do we go from here? But I couldn’t really see anywhere to go. I tried suggesting that there are so many different vectors of relationship between the play’s six characters that, in a way, Lenkiewicz had written a Monsterist play (she is one of the group of playwrights mentioned in last issue’s Quote of the Fortnight, who are keen to be given the opportunity to write and have staged large epic works) only compressed it into a mere handful of characters; she replied curtly, “No,” and left it at that. I wondered why she had acknowledged her artist sister, film-maker brother and writer father, when the man whose family name she bears – the late, eccentric painter Robert Lenkiewicz – seemed to me to be not just the temperamental but even the visual model for the character of selfish, self-aggrandising has-been Devlin in the play; she was so reluctant to respond to that idea that she wouldn’t even explain precisely what the family relationship was between her and Robert.
None of it did anything to dispel my suspicion that, like Steven Knight in last issue’s The President Of An Empty Room, Lenkiewicz knew what she wanted to write about but not what she wanted to say. On the one hand, she has an excellent ear for spoken dialogue; on the other, parts of this play plonk with an astounding preciousness that doesn’t seem to have been ushered in by the characters themselves. (At one point, out of the blue, someone ejaculates, “He do the police in funny voices”; this is a character who would neither be expected suddenly to mention the original working title of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, nor has been delineated as the sort of person who, in doing so, would get it wrong that way.) There are no great insights, no coups… it reminded me of the kind of high-school essay that rambles around the subject before ending rather desperately, “In conclusion, there are many different kinds of relationship.”
Sometimes one wishes that more rarefied works inspired the same fervent fandom as my raft of Smiths allusions above, the kind that also results in concordances such as can be found for bodies of genre work from Tolkien to Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In particular, I would welcome a history and geography of Ballybeg, the fictional Co. Donegal village which is the setting for all Brian Friel’s plays. As Kate Bassett notes when considering the current National Theatre revival of Friel’s Aristocrats together with The Home Place currently in the West End, there must either be two “big houses” in the village, one formerly the home of the English Protestant estate-owners and the other of the more local Catholic gentry, or perhaps we may infer that, shortly after the events of The Home Place, Christopher Hope sold up and returned to England, leaving his social role to be filled by the incoming O’Donnell family who declined over the generations to the modern-Chekhovian pass portrayed in Aristocrats. (In either case, Toby Young is quite wrong to equate the O’Donnells with the English colonists.) None of which says much about play or production. Well, Tom Cairns’ direction remains faithful to Friel’s script; however, this is one occasion when perhaps a slight departure might be advisable, to inject some pace and/or sense of purpose into the meandering first act and a half. William Gaskill preserves a similar sense of unforcedness in his adaptations and direction of five Raymond Carver short stories at the Arcola, but this is at the heart of Carver’s scrupulously spare style rather than, as with Friel, a matter of authorial uncertainty.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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