Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Laughing at England People Very Nice left me with a nasty taste in my mouth

Thursday 05 March 2009 01:00

It took me days to decide what I thought of the controversial England People Very Nice at the National. My impressions shape-shifted, twisted and turned confusedly. What I might have said about the play in the first 48 hours didn't make sense on subsequent days. It was a bit like the regret and wisdom that follow the thrilling kick of a really hot curry. I wonder now about critics who scribble reviews only hours after they scurry off from press nights. Would recollection in tranquillity or time make a difference to their judgements?

The play is simple, simplistic even, though technically impressive and with a sparkling cast. Hogarth and Terry Gilliam come together and have a huge laugh, sail through the waves of different migrants who, through centuries, have arrived in Bethnal Green. The script is sharp, though some lines sound too much like stand up comic gags. Writer Richard Bean and director Nicholas Hytner have staged the romp with élan. Nothing more than that, although Hytner once claimed his production would "address the issue of Islam very vigorously" – a vain promise. There is no obvious attempt to expose what lies beneath the fast waters sweeping along, no unexpected dive below the surface.

Perhaps those involved were having too much fun to mull and muse on the effect of their work. A number of reviews approve of the un-PC bravura and verve but key critics say the work is full of malevolent caricatures, racial stereotypes and (more seriously) that it lacks humanity. Anti-racist artists and activists have been protesting and have not been mollified by a (I suspect) hastily arranged Q&A session with the writer and director.

Is the play racist? No. The BNP would not enjoy it much. White working class East End blokes are not romantic defenders of the realm – just crude thugs. Besides what does that slur say about the intelligent, multiracial cast with actors such as Rudi Dharmalingam and Sacha Dhawan? We rarely see this talent on such stages. Yet there is much I do object to in the show. Words that are now rightly excised from public discourse – "Paki" etc – are revived here with panache. Audiences laugh at the jokiness of the revival, but later some may feel they conspired with something nasty and reprehensible. I wonder why I laughed at the coarse depiction of the Irish, jolly rape scenes, sinister mullahs and a happy ending which has a bigamous Bangladeshi man smiling with his white and brown families in an English suburb.

Just because we are free to offend, doesn't make it a duty for arts establishments to make sure they do, just to raise a laugh or appear brave. Is our National Theatre rehabilitating the words so they re-enter the most polite circles of the nation? There were no jokes about the Holocaust I noticed, and a good thing too.

We are going through another cycle of anti-immigrant xenophobia, last seen in the early Seventies when Enoch Powell was a hero. The Government, pushed by some tabloids, is hard on asylum seekers and migrants and even asylum children are now seen as a menace to be deported. There can be two reasons why Hytner and Bean are baffled by the hostility they have generated. Either they share some of the prejudices they show on stage – which I simply do not believe. Or, from where they sit, they do not understand the social habitat as it is at the moment. Their play could validate hostility faced by incomers or – worse – presents that pain as a rite of passage before winning acceptance. Hytner had hoped the work would not be a "controversy magnet". England people very naive.

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