The Stone
Royal Court Theatre, London SW1
Opened 9 February, 2009

We see what we want to see.  I’m not talking about the power of the critic, but about the general way in which human perception works.  Sometimes we simply fail to notice things that we’re not prepared for: witness how few reviewers have anything to say about the reunification of Germany with regard to Marius von Mayenburg’s The Stone, writing only about the Nazi-era injustices, when his entire point is that the reunification has, if not led to a comparable number and extent of iniquities with regard to property, then at least perpetuated and compounded a number of such wrongs, and that the German national psyche is as reluctant to address these continuing problems as it is to exhume some of the everyday nastinesses of Nazidom.  But we aren’t primed to spot such an issue, so we don’t register it.

The strange, perverse thing is that sometimes what we want to see is something that we don’t like.  This issue contains at least two spectacular examples: the alleged racism of Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice and the alleged anti-Semitism of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children.  Now, I have to admit right at the start that I’m on very shaky ground here, since I have seen neither play (the National Theatre, perhaps with deliberate caution, has programmed the repertoire schedule of England People so erratically that the first time it’s performed on an evening when I’m not already booked is a month or so hence).  But each has generated a remarkable brouhaha, and every so often the two have been linked.


To take Churchill’s play first, it seems that she has at the least been guilty of a rash act of metonymy, by using the word “Jewish” in her title when what she is criticising is the current Israeli government policy.  It’s easy to use this terminological sloppiness to claim that her point is not political but anti-Semitic.  I don’t for a minute believe that’s actually the case.  However, those who say that the play is an example of how anti-Semitism is becoming more tolerated and thus legitimised are, in a way, addressing what I think is Churchill’s real point, which is that the mainstream of political discourse on the subject of Israel and Palestine has become increasingly polarised.  Her script consists of a number of suggestions to “Tell her…” or not to tell her, the “her” being an imaginary child in, one presumes, Israel, possibly under attack as the adult characters are speaking.  These proposals grow more extreme through the play, just as the debate has grown more extreme rather than less in recent years.  Still, I despaired when I saw the moderate unionist and nationalist parties in my native Northern Ireland being eclipsed by the more extreme DUP and Sinn Féin, but within a very few years we saw what had previously seemed absurdly implausible, a power-sharing government headed by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in such an affable combination that they became irreverently known as “the Chuckle Brothers”.  There may yet be hope for the Middle East.

The kerfuffle about England People Very Nice has been the other side of the same coin.  The Quote of the Fortnight opposite [in the published edition] gives a quick sketch of the objections of Hussain Ismail, apparently a theatre practitioner from Bethnal Green, the district of east London where Richard Bean has set his play; Ismail’s Guardian blog article seemed to suggest that Bean’s play insults all other nationalities ever to have settled in Britain as a pretext in order that he might also insult contemporary Muslims.  That strikes me as a bit extreme.  The meeting with Nicholas Hytner, which Veronica was anticipating, was reported after the fact in terms of Ismail’s outrage at being patronised and at the NT’s refusal to apologise or to allow him to complain that the play is racist (even as he proceeded to make that very same complaint at some length on various newspaper pages).  The account I heard from sources close to the National suggest a rather different picture.  I’m told that Ismail and his delegation (which included a representative from the Respect political party, a grouping which seems to rely increasingly on east London sectarianism for its appeal) turned up demanding a public debate about the play, only to be told by Hytner that one had already been scheduled.  Slightly nonplussed, they demanded that it be held sooner; on being told that it couldn’t be rearranged and publicised in time, they then affected to be aggrieved.  (I can’t help thinking at this point of the peasant in Monty Python And The Holy Grail shouting, “Help, help, I’m being repressed!”)


And yet, look at the totality of the coverage of each play, and compare them, and it makes for some disturbing reading.  One blog commenter keenly juxtaposed Michael Billington’s comments about each: “Bean’s new work... leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Far from rejoicing in London's ethnic diversity, it manipulates a series of comic stereotypes like a misanthropic 1066 and All That” versus “But Churchill also shows us how Jewish children are bred to believe in the otherness of Palestinians and how, for generations to come, they stand to reap the bitter harvest of the military assault on Hamas.”  Arguably these are extreme examples of his view of each play, but I fear it’s not entirely misconceived to suggest that he seems to be straining at a humorous gnat whilst swallowing a polemical camel.

As I say, we see what we want to see.  Quentin Letts, for instance, sees in England People a cowardly reluctance to come out and indict the idea of multiculturalism as the root of our current communal unrest, because that’s the viewpoint he expects from the NT;  most other reviewers, in contrast, reckon that that’s precisely what the playwright is saying.  And elsewhere, Tim Walker sees in Alan Bennett’s Enjoy another example of what he condemned in his Be Near Me review as an excess of plays with homosexual themes.  I wonder what he would consider the right amount of such plays?  I don’t know Tim’s sexual orientation, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if he turned out to be gay and closeted?  The rank hypocrisy would be too, too delicious for words.
Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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