Royal Court Theatre, London SW1
Opened 11 September, 2008

An American student decides to satirise the debate about his college’s free-speech policy by attending a party dressed as the prophet Muhammad, with a friend got up as a homophobic Christian pastor. Pictures of the pair are published online, and tensions rise because – did I not mention this? – the kid in question is the son of the Democratic presidential candidate and it’s election night, on the verge of being “called” in Pop’s favour.
Christopher Shinn’s new 80-minute play looks fascinating in its initial moments, as the characters – John, his friend, his parents and a good cop/bad cop pair of campaign wonks – at first engage with the non-ideological aspects of the matter: the way that political campaigning is now a matter of “controlling the narrative”, and how the ease of publication offered by the Internet frustrates such top-down control. When it moves into particular discussion of relationships between western and Islamic cultural views it is no less intelligent, but somehow a little more disappointing; this road is well trodden, with pluralism on one side and principle on the other (John, as a gay man, is particularly aware of the attitudes of many Islamists on sex and sexuality).
It’s an interesting play to receive its world première (a) at this point in a U.S election year, (b) specifically on September 11, and (c) in the U.K. (To be fair, the date was simply happenstance in the current schedule of London press nights.) Opening the play in Britain may make it seem less of a direct comment on the McCain/Obama contest, but it also lessens the impact of the material in various respects. Not only is the issue of free speech on campuses far less fraught here, but crucially, this is not a social context in which Muslims are “they”. The play makes references to Muslim students on John’s campus, but underlying the discussion is a sense that Islamic thoughts and attitudes go on principally somewhere that is other, and that the need is to address the matter outwards rather than amongst us; I don’t think any British writer would currently get away with that.
Nevertheless, Dominic Cooke’s production is stimulating, and is driven by a central performance from Eddie Redmayne that is beyond stellar. Redmayne is both verbally and emotionally eloquent, and even when doubts set in about the material, he keeps the evening compelling.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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