Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 4 April, 2008

It was whilst watching Matthew Dunster’s excellent, pacy ensemble staging for Out Of Joint (now playing in London towards the end of a national tour) that I realised why I so like David Edgar’s writing. Edgar has fallen some way out of fashion in recent years: respected, even revered, but not fêted in an immediate way. This is because his kind of liberalism has also become passé: a kind that is not afraid to talk turkey rather than waffling in buzz-phrases. When Edgar examines a topic, he asks questions that are not rhetorical nor ends in themselves: he actually wants to find answers. He recognises that this process must also include an honest examination of our own standpoint, and crucially that such self-examination is not a symptom of insecurity or a sign of weakness.
The topic here is Britishness, in particular those values which we consider characteristically British and are secularly enshrined in the schooling now given for the government test in British citizenship. Teresa Banham plays the teacher of a course in English for Speakers of Other Languages which includes a citizenship component. Her own experiences with her students (including the shadow of double standards and/or the crucial dilemma of how far we can tolerate intolerance) are intercut with glimpses into the lives of various of her students and other citizenship applicants. Indeed, the sudden opening of the play is a masterly bait-and-switch test of audience prejudices: we see a young Yorkshire Asian blindfolded and imprisoned by such another young man in more traditionally Islamic dress, and assume abduction and perhaps indoctrination of some kind before their dialogue makes it apparent that this is a loving confinement, helping Mahmood go cold turkey off heroin.
John Major’s archaic, Orwell-derived vision of Englishness (warm beer, cricket on the village green etc) weaves through the play as an indicator that cherished values may be to a great extent mythical or outmoded. As Edgar no doubt realises, the play’s title itself is another such example, alluding to the mischievous advice to foreign visitors to “test the famous echo in the Reading Room of the British Library”. However, since the Library moved from its British Museum site a decade ago, this joke is itself now part of national mythology rather than contemporary reality. But myths can also embody collective human truths, and it is these which Edgar constantly delves for – not in an airy way but with his sleeves rolled up, digging vigorously in our social and cultural soil.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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