NT’s head under fire over ‘racist’ play claims

Protesters storm out of meeting, accusing Nicholas Hytner of avoiding debate
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Nicholas Hytner, the head of the National Theatre, was accused of being patronising and irresponsible yesterday by a group of artists campaigning against a play.

In an attempt to placate opponents of the play England People Very Nice Hytner agreed to meet the group, who insist that the drama about immigrants in London’s East End is racist and fails to represent the positive aspects of the multicultural area.

But the delegation headed by the playwright Hussain Ismail stormed out after the director refused to hold an extra public debate on the merits of the play on top of those scheduled by the National.

Written by Richard Bean, England People Very Nice chronicles four waves of immigration from the 17th century to today, as French Huguenots, the Irish, the Jews and the Bangladeshis settle in Bethnal Green.

It has received mixed reviews and caused considerable controversy, particularly amongst many in the Bangladeshi community.

Hytner, however, defended it against accusations of racism, insisting: “The play lampoons all forms of stereotyping: it is a boisterous satire of stereotypes of French, Irish, Jews, Bangladeshis, white East End Cockneys, Hampstead liberals and many others. Every stereotype is placed in the context of its opposite and it clearly sets out to demonstrate that all forms of racism are equally ridiculous.”

But Ismail, who attended the meeting along with the novelist Rabina Khan, actor Rez Kabir, and film maker Phil Maxwell, walked out of the debate within half an hour after an increasingly angry row ensued. “We were patronised. I was quite incensed and surprised that he was not willing to enter into a debate about the play.

“I thought it was irresponsible and reckless of the leader of a public institution meant to promote artistic discussion,” said Ismail.

He continued: “This play is racist and we want to argue and say that. This is not the East End we know. I was born in this area and know it very well. I love living in this area. I would not live anywhere else.

“It [the play] creates new stereotypes about Bangladeshis that I have never heard, that we marry our cousins which is complete rubbish. That is the Pakistanis.” The group had suggested hosting an event at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, which they would hire themselves, in a fortnight’s time, inviting interested parties and the media but said that Hytner “shut the door in our face”.

They are now organising a public protest outside the theatre at 5pm on 27 February in the run-up to Richard Bean’s platform discussion on England People Very Nice an hour later.

“Basically the National Theatre closed the door on the East End this afternoon and said we are a bunch of morons with no right of reply,” said Maxwell.

A spokesman for the National Theatre insisted that they were not against a debate but merely the format it should take.

“The delegation asked for a debate on the play within two weeks. We already have two debates scheduled: one on Immigration in Literature on 15 April [at which Rabina Khan will be speaking]; and a discussion about the play, led by Nick Hytner, on 17 April. At the group’s suggestion, instead of charging £3.50 as we normally would, that debate will be free to attend. So our disagreement is simply over the date of the debate.”