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?