Free Outgoing / Statement Of Regret
Various venues
November, 2007

We can’t help seeing matters through our own filters.  And of course, as I’ve often noted here, subjectivity is one of the givens of reviewing.  But that’s subjectivity about artistic matters; can we achieve no better when considering social or political points that may arise from the work we are reviewing?  Well, I guess not. 


Look at the reviews of Free Outgoing, for instance: look at the reviewers who see, in the events and attitudes of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s play, an implicit rebuke of us Brits for our licence and laxity.  There is, they imply, there is something more understandable and, well, proper about the shocked responses in Chennai to a 15-year-old girl having sex after school, which act was caught on a phonecam and the video spread virally.  How sad that it wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow in Britain.  Charles Spencer remarks that “These days [teenage pregnancy is] viewed as the most sensible way of getting to the top of the council housing list”… which was a fiction even twenty years ago when there was such a thing as council housing.  (As an explanation for non-Britons, much of that small portion of housing stock still owned by local government authorities after two decades of right-to-buy policies is now being sold off not to individual tenants but to public/private bodies of varying degrees of conscientiousness.  I hope I’ve phrased that tentatively enough to avoid another correction!)

Only a few of us find more of interest in the responses our cultures would have in common to such a situation: the commodification of the girl in question, to the point where she becomes public property with everyone expressing an opinion about her conduct, the combination of reproof and prurience exhibited towards not just her but her family, the all too common media siege which here results in the inability to deliver water to the complex they live in.  (In this respect, Indhu Rubasingham’s production is a little too decorous; we get no sense of the depredations of hygiene and thirst wrought on the family and their neighbours, although there’s not really a lot that can be done on that score within the course of 75 minutes’ continuous action.)  Most parents anywhere would respond as Deepa’s widowed mother Malini does: first growing ever more strident in her condemnation of anyone else to hand – the school principal, her less favoured elder child, the family of the boy involved, or modern culture in general (in a frenzy, she cuts the plug off the family television, though the computer is left working since it drives a later scene).  Later, in her attempts to find a way out for the family, she almost even offers herself to the office dork if he will smuggle Deepa out past the reporters.  In the end, she sees no alternative but to collaborate with a tawdry TV programme. 

And it keeps coming back to commodification, to notoriety of any kind as a publicly tradable stock regardless of the person concerned.  This is why Caroline McGinn and Matt Wolf are right to praise the fact that Chandrasekhar never shows us Deepa herself onstage, and why others are wrong to bemoan that we do not see her human face.  The play is precisely about the way in which she has been denied her humanity, turned into an icon, a topic, an MMS file – she even loses her name and becomes simply “the MMS girl”.  To show us her feelings would be to sentimentalise the play rather than accepting its indictment of us all.


Of course, matters can be spelt out too overtly.  Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Statement Of Regret comes with a reading list integrated into its text, with references onstage to (and a lengthy interview in the programme with) Dr Joy DeGruy Leary’s theories of post-traumatic slave syndrome.  Moreover, the fact that the play is set in a public policy think-tank – in other words, a professional talking shop – is a fairly unmissable signal that this will be a play of words rather than events.  And so it proves, being by my reckoning an hour and a half of talk followed by 45 minutes or so of… well, “action” is putting it a little generously, but some things happen. Kate Bassett’s remark that “Kwei-Armah is now our black British David Hare” is surely double-edged.  (I also wonder whether the references to the play’s protagonist changing his name from Derrick to Kwaku are a self-defensive gesture on the part of the play’s author, who was born Ian Roberts.  I mean, why would anyone want to get rid of the name Ian?)

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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