Veronica Lee: Don't you dare apologise, Mr Hytner

'England People Very Nice' is a heartfelt argument for assimilation

Share
Related Topics

Heard the one about a Huguenot, a Jew, an Irishman and a Bangladeshi? The metropolitan chatterati are in a right state over a new play at the National Theatre in London – Richard Bean's England People Very Nice – because it deals with the vexed issues of race, multiculturalism and immigration. If it were just some trendy types contorting themselves into their predictably anguished, politically correct positions, it would be merely amusing.

But today, Nicholas Hytner, the National's artistic director, has agreed to meet a delegation from Equal Platform, headed by Hussain Ismail, who says the play is "offensive stereotyping", "a personal attack" and "racist". The play, charting immigration over several centuries in London's East End, is riotously funny and cleverly devised, and deploys all sorts of theatrical and literary tropes – exaggeration, irony, play within a play – to tell its story.

One does assume a reasonable level of sophistication among National audiences, but clearly poking fun at ethnic stereotypes, such as suggesting that French Huguenots smelled of garlic, or the Irish are too fecund for their own good, or that young British Asians' patois sounds ridiculous, has been taken by Mr Ismail as a literal statement of the National's view of immigrants. As a playwright friend said to me, the play may just be too funny for its own good.

There isn't a scintilla of racism in it and I wouldn't dream of defending it if there were. Rather, it is a heartfelt argument for assimilation (or "having sex with the locals", as the relentlessly humourless Mr Ismail has it) and – the play's serious purpose, cogently argued – the danger of some radicalised Muslims wishing to remain separate from British society, which they regard as the infidel.

That worries me, but what worries me far more is this campaign against the National, which is nothing less than an attack on freedom of speech. Mr Ismail, who describes himself as a theatre worker of Bangladeshi origin but who sounds like Dave Spart's long-lost cousin the minute he opens his mouth, has demanded that Mr Bean "be brought to account" at a public meeting (public lynching, anyone?), that the National's website carries an apology and that each copy of the play's programme includes a rebuttal by the offended parties. It would be funny if it weren't so tragically misguided.

I speak as the daughter of Irish immigrants (one of six children – hey, I'm a stereotype, too) who faced signs saying "No blacks, no Irish" when they tried to rent rooms or applied for jobs in post-war Britain. But over time, that offensive nonsense abated and they settled in London, enjoying the far greater opportunities available here than in Ireland – or "home", as they called it to their dying day, because it is possible to retain a sense of self while being adopted into another culture. They believed in a united Ireland, but were appalled when the UK was under attack from paramilitaries – and my dad would walk out of any pub where a collection went up "for the lads".

I applaud Mr Hytner for staging an important play that celebrates our rich multicultural past, present and future. But I am appalled that he has agreed to meet this delegation. So, I say to him: by all means explain to these sadly deluded people what the play is really about, but don't you dare apologise.

Veronica Lee is a writer and critic

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Female Support Workers / Carers - From £8.00 per hour

£8 - £12 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To assist a young family with the care ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Executive is required...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

£55000 - £70000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world lead...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world leading services pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Police officers attempt to stop illegal migrants from jumping onto trucks headed for Britain in the northeastern French port of Calais on October 29, 2014  

Tighter security in Calais won’t solve the problem

Nigel Morris
 

Football needs its Martin Luther moment, and soon

Boyd Tonkin
US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines