Theatre & Race

Two new plays opened in London this week, both of which have been accused of racism in one form or another. The first is England People Very Nice by Richard Bean and the other is Seven Jewish Children by Caryl Churchill. Bean’s play is a energetic pageant telling the story of the various waves of immigration into the East End from the Huguenots in C17/18 to the Bangladeshis and Somalis of the post-war period. Churchill’s play is a ten-minute response to the Gaza incurion and tells an elliptical story of the state of Israel in the 60-odd years since its post-war foundation; I say elliptically, because the text is in seven sections, each of which comprises adults instructing each other things to tell their children. The lines are not attached to characters, no specific historical reference are made and it’s all to be inferred. The full text can be downloaded at the Royal Court’s website.

Richard Bean’s play has been accused of racial stereotyping. Because of its high-velocity sprint through hundreds of years of history, it perhaps relies on creating its immigrant characters with a broad brush and it could be seen as indulging on stereotypes as much as mocking them. Certainly, that’s the view of Hussain Ismail whose fiery response in the Guardian today claims that the show ‘simply reinforces racist myths more commonly found in the gutter press’.

He has apparently been granted a meeting with the show’s director, Nick Hytner, also the artistic director of the National Theatre, and it will be interesting to see if this defuses or aggravates tensions.

Churchill’s play has been accused of insensitivity by critic Andrew Haydon and of outright antisemitism by Jonathan Hoffman. Haydon argues that the play in presenting only implicit criticisms of Israel – and not, for example, of the history of anti-Israeli terrorism, the recent actions of Hamas, etc.  – the play could seem tendentious and one-sided. He also notes that the play is being presented free straight after The Stone, a play about the Nazi disposession of Jewish homes, an unintended parallel might be evoked that suggests that Israel is acting ‘like Nazis’. Jonathan Hoffman goes further accusing Churchill of ‘demonisation and falsification’ and ultimately of peddling anti-semitic stereotypes. The commentators on that blog go even further, disgracefully threatening to turn up and heckle the performance.

I don’t want to say whether I think either play is guilty of the charges made against it. I should certainly say that both plays have been stoutly defended against these charges and I only underline the accusations because their near-simultaneous appearance seems to be a chance to consider how theatre works. In the case of the Richard Bean play, the energetic popular-theatre style turns everyone into cartoons to some extent, and derives much of its energy and excitement from that, and it would be interesting to see the argument developed to take that in to account.

In the case of Churchill, the thing that troubles me about the criticisms is that the elliptical nature of her performance text (it’s not exactly a ‘play’ as such) is such that the ‘meaning’ of her play is ambiguous, strange, possibly polemical, but her stance is not straightforward. It is, in my view, a mistake to suggest that you can simply decide that the play means one thing and one thing only. (I think Hoffman does this in his interpretation of the lines about ‘a land without a people’ and ‘the chosen people’, for example, which he ties very quickly to a particular meaning, possibly because those meanings have been attached to those phrases before – but the theatre is a place for transforming meanings, revising positions, blurring and complicating fixed positions.) Anti-semitism is certainly on the rise in Britain and this needs to be counteracted fiercely whenever it is detected. However, there is a rather militant position that identifies all criticisms of Israel with criticisms of Jews as such and this is surely not something that has to be accepted. Churchill’s play is an attempt to grasp Israel’s embattled and battling sixty-year history and while it certainly is a critical perspective on how a people who were the victim of history’s worst genocide could come to prepare  ‘disproportionate responses’ to their new enemies, I don’t believe it is an anti-semitic text in the least. 

But what if they were? Can the theatre – or any other artform – deal in racist stereotypes in the name of art (or indeed of anti-racism)? Shakespeare’s Henry VI pt I depicts the French in a scornfully xenophobic way, and a production I saw last year played this up. Am I wrong in claiming that the theatre’s inherent playfulness and ambiguity can always override and complicate any racist imagery? Are political considerations higher and more important than artistic ones?

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Filed under General news, General reading, Theatre

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