THE ART OF THEATRE / 13 Dialect: Nicholas Wright's Masterclass

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RAMJOHN: Well next is de seams, small ting like de seams nobody tink de seams is important but de seams is de most important part a de whole suit, people do' notice de seams, dey say boy dat is nice suit you or is a terrific suit you wearing. But I see Robert Mitchum in a suit once an it was de seams, all I could see was de seams, pure seams, seams galore, de man had seams all over de place and wen de man grab (shows) Jane Russell yer tink is de suit grab she, nar, is de seams grab she, because, yer know, Mitchum en' no actor.

SAMUEL: Yes.

RAMJOHN: Yes, man, Mitchum en' no actor, is de seams does act for him.

SAMUEL: Yes.

RAMJOHN: Dat is why whenever yer sees Mitchum, he in seams but a sure he do' realise how important de seams is, he is de reel star, Mitchum tailor.

SAMUEL: What is he name?

RAMJOHN: I do' know he name, yer feel I is a dictionary?

PLAY MAS by Mustapha Matura, Act One, Scene One

SNEAKY (looking into a bag): I can't belive you. I've had it so often, you've got to be winding me up.

RUCKER: What?

SNEAKY: One, I've got white bread. Two, without opening this coffee, I'll bet your wages this has got sugar in it.

RUCKER: Yeah. All right.

SNEAKY (tasting the coffee): Just lost your wages. No money today, Rucker.

RUCKER: Yeah. All right.

SNEAKY: You agreed to the bet.

RUCKER: Yeah. All right.

SNEAKY: I said, I bet your wages. You said 'Yeah. All right.'

RUCKER: Let's taste the coffee.

SNEAKY: There's sugar in it.

RUCKER: I can't taste it.

SNEAKY: I'll let you off this time.

RUCKER: Yeah. All right.

SNEAKY: Is that all they teach you at school?

RUCKER: I don't go to school . . . I'm banned. Go within a mile radius of the school and I'm nicked. Done me maths teacher with a chair.

UP FOR NONE by Mick Mahoney, Scene One

WHEN William Gaskill was directing Edward Bond's Lear in Munich, he hit an unexpected problem. By Act Three, Lear has taken refuge in a cottage. A threatening visit is paid by a group of militia. But 'They were just soldiers,' says Lear, once they've gone, 'No rank.'

The rehearsal stopped. How - the actors asked - could Lear possibly know this? He can't have counted the stripes on their sleeves, for an obvious reason: he's blind. 'By their accent,' said Gaskill. Much hilarity among the cast: the soldiers were speaking exactly the same as everyone else, ex-king included.

Strange as it may seem, the fact that characters reveal their birthplace, job and bank balance by the way they speak is obvious only to us. Throughout the rest of Europe, stage dialogue is classless. The few exceptions are bold experiments.

But this is what the entire edifice of British realism rests on. For the playwright of these islands, class is a source of poetry, like sex or death. For the audience, it's a delight: a chance to exercise its Miss Marple-like skill at turning the tiniest signals into riots of detection. 'Is that character a postman? He doesn't sound like one. Oh, he's only sorting letters over Christmas? I see.' And a solid egalitarian case could be made for saying that every convincing British play is written in dialect of some form or another, be it that of the Oxbridge college or the Trinidadian tailor-shop.

What's different about the dialect Mustapha Matura deploys in Play Mas is that it's been pinned down to paper for the first time in its life. It's comic, not because the situation is cheerful - Ramjohn and Samuel are class enemies - but because dialogue as newly captured as this can't lie. Ramjohn's anxiety to impress shines through; so does Samuel's bubbling resentment. It's 'exquisite'; every hesitation, every sweep-on-through is musically judged. And it's muscular, like those anatomical books for children where you pull up the skin to see the sinews and bones beneath.

For 'sinews', read repetitions. Nothing is more tedious in run-of-the-mill Polyfilla writing than endless repeats. 'Ted rang.' 'Ted?' 'Your lawyer.' 'What about him?' 'He rang this morning.' 'Who did?' 'Ted, for God's sake]' But the repeating of 'seams' is organic and supple. The laugh - as ever - comes on a startling word lobbed in from left field: 'dictionary'.

Mick Mahoney pulls the same trick in Up for None, lulling us with 'Yeah. All right', only to hit us - as well as the teacher - over the head with the 'chair'. Like the Play Mas excerpt, this is a classic master-and-servant routine, with its roots in commedia dell'arte. The sense that two different scenes are taking place simultaneously - one playful, one hostile - goes back to the dawn of time. So does the knowledge that at any moment the two men's status might be reversed. It's a situation which only works in dialect or when played by gifted clowns: 'received' language on its own just isn't subtle enough.

Next week: BEGINNINGS

(Photograph omitted)

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