Hamlet / England People Very Nice
Various venues
February / March, 2009

A handy chronological coincidence meant that I followed up my viewings of Over There and Berlin Hanover Express with a few days in Berlin itself.  (And by the way, why do Ian Kennedy Martin’s characters get so exercised about a concentration camp some 80 miles from Berlin when Sachsenhausen was almost within the city limits?)  Alas, I didn’t get to see the Schaubühne’s production of Marius von Mayenburg’s Der Stein to compare with its recent Royal Court outing, and the Hamlet I did catch was rather disappointing compared to previous encounters with Thomas Ostermeier’s directorial work (although it features an excellent, playfully mad/madly playful central performance from Lars Eidinger).  I was also intrigued, to say the least, to discover that mid-May will see the German première of The Producers.  Moreover, I must acknowledge a mail I received from Mark Ravenhill about my Financial Times review of Over There.  Mark took slight exception to my description of him as an “in-yer-face godfather”; he is, he insists, the genre’s fairy godmother.


But whilst in some respects enveloped by notions of Germanness, my most striking experience concerned English identity (a matter on which I consider myself to have an outsider’s perspective).  For I finally got a chance to see Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice at the National Theatre.  Now, when the fracas about this play first boiled up, I had commented on various blogs in dismissal of the protests, but had said that if I thought differently after seeing the play I would declare as much publicly.  Having now seen it, I have to admit, the protesters have something of a point.

Not about racism as such, at least not in the way that they mean: as one blogger remarked, Richard Bean is an equal-opportunities piss-taker – he mocks everybody regardless of ethnicity.  Certainly, when I think about the portrayal of the Irish in the play and about the protests of one Keith Kinsella about the alleged racism thereof, I can’t imagine that his outrage was anything but confected in order to make the complaints look less than entirely Bangladeshi-Muslim-centred.  But as one character in the play – and, tellingly, a member of the British National Party – remarks, this kind of debate is not about skin colour any more, but culture.  Bean’s target is Islamism, and he isn’t very good or very diligent at distinguishing it from Islam per se.


Islamism isn’t the subject of more than trace levels of piss-taking in the play; it’s the subject of outright hostility.  Granted, it’s not the only extremism shown growing through recent decades – far-right British nationalism also gets some focus.  However, the latter’s increasing hold is treated with, if not sympathy, certainly some understanding; in contrast, no remotely comparable approach is taken to the growth of Wahhabism and the like.  It wouldn’t have been that hard to show younger Muslims perceiving a lack of rigour in their antecedents’ practices, but instead what we’re shown is bigmouthed youth simply disrespecting their elders and booming about “protecting our territory”.  The appearance of a Wahhabi imam with hooks instead of both hands is clearly meant to be a cartoon, going one further than the mono-hooked Abu Hamza; but when his portrayal becomes an actual cartoon, a huge animation on the backdrop spouting lines of offensiveness and hatred, it serves to remind us that cartoons aren’t by definition funny, and can in fact be instruments of hatred themselves.  Pete Bishop’s other animations are amusing or blend cleverly with the staging, but I’m afraid this one reminded me of nothing so much as anti-Semitic cartoons across much of the last century.  I don’t think “hatred” is putting it too strongly.  More than once I felt myself on the verge of walking out, and pretty much all that kept me in my seat was the desire to be able to discuss it afterwards from a position of having seen it all.

Another problem leading to an imbalanced portrayal of Islam is that for much of the second act even the principal “good Muslim”, as it were, the character of Mushi, is shown being driven by a sense of religious commission to sire twins and give one to the mosque.  Although little explicit comment is made on this matter, the subtext is that it’s a pernicious delusion, and his redemption (so to speak) comes when he frees himself from the idea and breaks with the mosque with which he has been involved for decades.  Yes, this break is explained in terms of the extremism of the new imam, but there’s an untidiness of connotation there which could have been taken care of with only a little effort.  I don’t think the argument that this is meant to be a rough, untidy play – a pageant of sorts, staged by the inmates of an asylum-seekers’ detention centre in a play-within-a-play framing device – excuses such laxity.


For me, all of this devalues the attention paid throughout most of the play to love: it seems to me to suggest, not that love is the end and integration the means, but rather  that love and intermarriage are the greatest tool in the box, or perhaps the strongest weapon in the arsenal, of integration or even assimilation.  (I think Bean’s endorsement moves from the former to the latter as the play continues.)  I have to say, there wasn’t the slightest harbinger of this in the first half of the evening; throughout the interval I was as confident as ever that the protesters were, as I said online, earnest people missing the point that it’s about them in ways other than they think.  But the second half left me deeply disturbed, and I don’t think that feeling’s going to lift for some time.
Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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