Mocking multiculturalism at the National

The controversial play England People Very Nice might be bawdily irreverent, but it ultimately conforms to Hampstead Liberal piety.

Patrick Marmion

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The National Theatre in London has an interesting relationship with multiculturalism.

On the one hand, it benefits from grants handed out on condition that it toes the line of official British government social policy – access, equal opportunities, out-reach, etc. On the other hand, it is more than a little inclined to bite the hand that feeds – asserting its artistic independence with social and political satire. That’s why Richard Bean’s raucous comedy charting immigration into the UK over the last 400 years – England People Very Nice – is an intriguing symptom of the National Theatre’s neurotic dilemma.

On the face of it, Bean’s story ticks all the right boxes of political correctness. It is framed as a piece of community theatre with sundry asylum seekers devising a play about immigration. What follows, though, is a bawdily irreverent, whirlwind account of how British society (London’s Bethnal Green in particular) became a melting pot devouring one generation of immigrants after another. To sum up its argument, the play starts with a dumb show featuring the rape and pillage of early Britons by invading Romans: a Norse invader sodomises the wife of a man he’s just butchered, before he is himself butchered by a Roman who then continues sodomising the recently bereaved spouse.

In the wake of this jolly mime, Bean hurtles through the centuries from the influx of persecuted protestant French ‘Huguenots’ in 1572, followed by the Irish, Russian Jews, Indians, American GIs and West Indian labourers, all inevitably culminating in a send up of militant Muslims today. The author gleefully swipes at any issue within reach. Religions are challenged over their failure to mention dinosaurs in sacred texts. Believers in the afterlife are warned by a succession of sceptics that Bethnal Green is the only paradise they will ever know. And, a complacent capitalist tells nineteenth-century refugees from the Russian shtetls that the only way to bring peace to the world is by giving Palestine to the Jews.

Bean’s central theme is the absurdity of fixed claims of racial identity which are soon dissolved by the next wave of migrants. But the breakneck speed with which one generation of immigrants replaces the next to become the natives’ new worst enemy continually sets hilarity before insight. Accordingly, Nicholas Hytner’s production is a Rabelaisian carnival that ensures every culture is equally spoofed and stereotyped. So when the filthy sister-shagging, pig-keeping Irish eventually integrate through marriage with the singing, sewing, penny-pinching Semites, one character jokes that the resultant family are ‘pissed-up burglars run by a clever accountant’.

In line with the National Theatre’s mandate not to discriminate on the basis of age, colour or sexual orientation, the cast is an exuberant rainbow coalition of British ‘communities’ – excepting perhaps the disabled. The tumultuous impertinence of the actors, let off the leash of political correctness by the play’s irreverence, is the show’s principal source of fun. Aaron Neil as a free-thinking Indian scoffs that the Brits will never take to curry because ‘they don’t have the arse for it’. And Sophie Stanton has a ball as the brassy cockney pub landlady who curses each new wave of migrants: ‘Course I slag ’em, that’s freedom of speech, innit!’ But Michelle Terry surely has the biggest laugh as the Irish lass shocked by the idea of sex ‘outside the family’ and later as a posh revolutionary socialist determined to ferment class struggle by having sex with a docker.

At one level, Bean’s play is simply a tour de force. To orchestrate this much history even in three hours requires no small genius. In the process, he cunningly integrates Britain’s cultural traditions, fusing costume drama, music hall, Carry On films, sitcoms like Dad’s Army and soap operas like EastEnders. On top of this, there’s more than a touch of Monty Python in Pete Bishop’s Terry Gilliamesque animations projected on to the back of the set to illustrate the shifting social landscape. And in the end, the play recalls nothing so much as the seminal satirical overview of British society, 1066 And All That.

This being the National Theatre, though, the play is also marked by that other great influence on postwar political drama: Bertolt Brecht. The journey through class struggles on the way from feudalism to multiculturalism is steeped in Brecht’s revolutionary epic theatre striding through vast acres of time and space with a band of gutsy working-class characters. And yet the play’s didactic teeth are drawn by the comedy. By telescoping time and space and laughing off the bloodshed that comes with inter-racial conflict, political and historical analysis are excluded.

Instead of worrying about how all this came to pass, you can simply sit back and enjoy the even-handed assault on the transitory idiocy of racial prejudice. Yet doing so renders the whole exercise pointless and lets today’s liberal establishment off the hook. Indeed, Bean offers only gently affectionate mockery for what he dubs ‘Hampstead liberals’. These are the sort of harmless twits who blame themselves when they’re mugged and excuse neurotic parenting skills, saying ‘we’re very busy, self-obsessed and in the evening a little bit pissed’. They are presented as harmless innocents, blameless as children.

But as anyone from the Middle East, and many of the immigrants featured in this play, knows from experience, the supremacy of the Hampstead liberal is far from innocent. It is predicated on violence buried in time (Empire, famine, etc) and displaced in space (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc). It is exactly this displacement of violence in time and space which makes it possible to disavow the agony of history. Too close an identification with the characters would steer the play to tragedy. Laughing it off and keeping the bloodshed at arms length ensures that everything can seem to change while everything stays the same.

A rollickingly good yarn Bean’s play may be, but it also keeps the National Theatre looking radical while making sure it is nothing of the sort.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent. England People Very Nice is playing at the National Theatre till 30 April 2009.

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