Royal Court Theatre, London SW1
Opened 20 October, 2010

You may not have heard of the Ig Nobel Prizes.  They are an offspring of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, and are intended, as the web site puts it, “to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative – and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology.  And one of this year’s prizes – in the category not of Medicine, but of Peace! – was given to a team from Keele University whose research provides hard confirmation that swearing can help relieve pain.

The Ig Nobels are often portrayed in popular media as acknowledging the heights of pointless or just plain dumb research, but the quotation reproduced above gives the lie to that caricature.  The research on swearing, for instance, is helpful not simply in itself (as proving that no amount of “Dang!”s or “Poots!” when you hit your thumb with a hammer will give as much relief as, say, “JESUS FUCKING CHRIST!!”).  It also indicates in more general terms that there is positive value in transgressive language.  It dismisses (I was abut to say “once and for all”, but alas, that can never be) the priggish argument that “there’s no need for such language”.  Crossing the boundaries of propriety on occasion serves to reaffirm those boundaries.


Some readers may already have guessed where I am heading with this argument. Yes: I’m heading to Quentin Letts’ Daily Mail review of Nina Raine’s Tribes.  Quentin often gets het up about swearing when no-one else notices it, and this is one such occasion.  To be fair, John Nathan and Georgina Brown both refer in passing to one character as “foul-mouthed”, but neither makes anything of it.  In contrast, Quentin’s entire review becomes about it, and the Mail headlined it in those terms: “Family saga sullied by foul words”.  Granted, too, Quentin portrays this at one point as a matter of effect rather than propriety: “Miss Raine,” he writes, “uses bad language so promiscuously that the words lose their potency and simply become litter.”  It’s a valid point in theory, except that the entire vocabulary of the sentence – “bad language”, “promiscuously”, “litter” – belies the claim by being judgemental from the very start.
He argues that “We also say ‘um’ and ‘er’, yet seldom are these included in theatre scripts.”  Perhaps he should read more scripts; it’s a matter of authorial preference.  Moreover, such particles almost invariably carry no meaning, unlike expletives, where the transgression is the point.  It seems downright perverse to argue that we should forgo an entire category of significant and, yes, often necessary language on grounds simply of taste.  It’s also bitterly ironic that this broadside should be occasioned by a play one of whose major themes is the value of a variety of modes of expression, how such a plurality can increase communication, deepen the bonds between people and strengthen individual senses of identity.  And most of all, it was simply spectacularly bad timing, since a bare few days later Quentin was back in the Court’s Upstairs space reviewing Red Bud, which packs 300 or so expletives – a good 80-90% of them indisputably redundant and serving simply as more profane spaceholding equivalents of “um” and “er” – into little more than an hour.  It rather gave the impression that he had fired off his blunderbuss too soon and at the wrong target.


Language matters.  The point underlying Quentin’s argument – and another aspect investigated by Raine – in her play is that, where language is limited, it is much harder for thought to operate on an abstract level.  If there is no vocabulary of transgression, it is harder even to conceive of transgressing.  And sometimes it simply makes things more interesting.  Kate Bassett, for instance, goes against the critical flow in championing Martin Sherman’s Onassis as “an outstanding venture in the commercial West End [with a] story [which] incorporates major issues”.  Yes, but it doesn’t do so at all vibrantly.  The language is sometimes highfalutin, but it never comes alive.  At least, not that I saw.  I must confess that, since I wasn’t on Financial Times duty, I left at the interval… not because play or production were bad, but because they were ineffably dreary.  Which, given the salaciousness and sensation of the subject matter, is quite an achievement.  I simply didn’t believe that I would have a deeper, wider or fuller experience by staying for the second half.

Sometimes language matters on a solely pedantic level.  Michael Coveney praises Robert Lindsay as an actor “whose career is bookended by brilliant performances” in Me And My Girl and The Entertainer: if that were so, his performance in Onassis would be some time after the end of his career.  It’s tempting to be flippant on this score, but I shall resist…  sometimes a word suggests itself for one reason but ends up in context suggesting something quite different.  Mark Shenton, not in his review but in a posting online, described the plot of Flashdance as “a kind of adult Billy Elliot”.  This is true in as much as the principal characters are grown-up rather than children; however, in terms of social and economic insight and complexity, it’s Lee Hall’s script for Billy Elliot that is the more mature and Flashdance that reduces things to the level of a gritty fairy-tale.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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