John Walsh: Yes, Tom Stoppard, it was me laughing

Share
Related Topics

How do you make torture entertaining? How do you stage terror, infanticide, brutalisation and extraordinary rendition in a way that leaves your audience uplifted and in the mood for a drinks party? That's the problem that faced the Human Rights Watch organisation at the weekend, as they staged their benefit night at London's Royal Court Theatre. Rather than relying, as they have in previous years, on the reportage of individuals (which can be a recipe for earnestness and gloom), the organisers commissioned several mini-dramas from famous playwrights and actors, under the umbrella title The Laws of War. I checked the programme: there were nine events – an hour and a half of gruelling statistics and savage political satire, before we could hit the free wine. "Enjoy," said the ticket-tearer. I scanned her face for signs of irony.

Amazingly, I did enjoy it. An episodic playlet by Richard Bean (author of English People Very Nice) about a Human Rights Watch rookie being gradually stripped of her idealism by her cynical colleagues, was as funny and silly as an end-of-the-year staff party show. Two suavely à la mode businessmen, chatting over a drink, revealed themselves to be apparatchiks of tyranny, as dangerous to each other as to their victims. Polly Stenham, the Royal Court's 23-year-old wunderkind, put a cast of three young children alone on-stage and conjured up the horrors of Beslan School without, somehow, becoming unbearable.

What made these brief dramaticules work was their brevity. When you must conjure up a war zone, an interrogation room or an imminence of terror in 10 minutes, it concentrates the mind, makes every chatty exchange seethe with menace, every vacuous pleasantry freighted with unspoken predation. Far from depressing you, it makes you marvel at the language of political horror.

Tom Stoppard provided the best example, in a playlet worthy of Pinter. A man in the interrogation room explained that he didn't like the word "torture". He preferred "pizza", for its comprehensive "menu" of possibilities. You had to infer from the dialogue which exquisite applications of pliers and blowtorch were summoned up by "margharita" and "quattro stagioni". At a key moment, a military torturer approaches the man with some news. "No go?" asks the latter, "Try... anchovies." It was a line both sublimely funny and very shocking. The audience sat as if stunned by its economy. Over drinks afterwards, I congratulated Stoppard on pulling off such a coup with a single word. "You must have been that person who was laughing," he said shortly. But it had been an evening for something beyond laughter.









A predictable furore, but Rima marks progress



Rima Fakih, the young lady pictured, is an unusual girl to have been crowned Miss America. For one thing, she's the first Arab-American to achieve that dizzying position in its 58-year history (although the organisers say they "can't be sure", because the question of the contestants' racial identity didn't come up in the early days). For another, she's proud to be a Shi'ite Muslim, at a time when that's probably the last thing you admit to being in Dearborn, Michigan (where she lives) or Las Vegas (where the contest was held). Third, amid the ruck of photogenic birdbrains, she came across as smart and clever: instead of blathering on, in her strapless gown, about her dreams of travelling, helping sick kids and working for world peace, she said she thought federal health insurance should cover contraceptive pills.

Rather more predictable is the furore that broke out shortly after the contest. Just as Rima's supporters were celebrating "the true face of Arab Americans" (ie the kind that don't leave car bombs in Times Square), mischief was afoot. TMZ, the online gossip site, gleefully reported that the lovely Ms Fakih had been photographed, three years earlier, winning a pole-dancing contest in a Detroit strip club; they gave the impression that she was snapped in poses of such rank explicitness that they would horrify a convention of gynaecologists.

Naturally, I hurried (on your behalf) to see if it was true – but no, it's only Rima and some madcap pals shriekily taking lessons in a how-to-disrobe-for-your-husband routine, during a girls-only evening at the club. She herself is photographed on-stage in a blue tank-top and red shorts, as demurely covered up as the Great Mufti of Jerusalem. No scandal then – but you can tell an anti-Muslim backlash is gathering its scaly tail around it in the US heartland. What's heartening is the complete lack of condemnation from Islamic circles about a nice Muslim girl displaying her navel to 50 million infidel viewers.





You can dress it up however you like ...



Spring is bursting out all over west London. The bluebells are out in Holland Park, the flamingos are flourishing in the Roof Gardens, tourists are flocking at the Orangery tearooms – and look there, under the trees, it's the new urban phenomenon: pastel-polythene dogshit.

Dog-walkers in these expensive regions do not, it seems, live by the same rules as dog-walkers elsewhere. They are perfectly happy to clean up after their incontinent pets; but they draw the line at having to take it away. Instead they leave it wrapped up under a nearby tree like a very disappointing Christmas present, confident that some municipal lackey on a minimum wage will be delighted to dispose of it for them. But as a kindly gesture, they wrap the canine ordure in coloured polythene. I've seen pink ones and pale blue ones under the trees of W11, even acid green ones. Where do they find these pastel plastic bags, the colours of Sobranie cocktail cigarettes? And can the non-dog-walking throng just point out that, dress it up however you may, it's still dogshit and it's still your property?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there