Why has the National Theatre extended the run of a play which has been accused of fuelling racism?
In April 2009, we saw England People Very Nice by Richard Bean at the National Theatre. This was meant to be the last week the play was showing. Imagine our shock when we saw the website of the National Theatre still prominently advertising the play, with extra dates added until August.
When the play opened it was labelled as racist by other playwrights and led to an eruption of protest organised by East End theatre groups, including demonstrations and the stage being stormed when an after-show discussion was taking place. Was there any justification to this level of response? The short answer is yes.
We should start by saying that we did not make it to the end of the play and left at the interval – thoroughly depressed. On that night almost every seat was taken and, on the whole, the audience seemed to be White and middle-class. And boy did they have fun – laughing at cheap jokes at the expense of the refugees and migrants seeking refuge here.
The conceit of the play is that it is set in an immigration removal centre where, unbeknownst to the asylum seekers being detained, the guards are waiting to issue them with their deportation letters. As a ‘leisure’ activity (in detention), the asylum seekers are putting on a play about migration to Bethnal Green in the East End of London.
The first migrants shown to arrive in the area were French Huguenots – so followed a few stock gags about frogs and garlic. Then came the Irish immigrants – who mostly seemed to be hard-drinking, incestuous, permanently-pregnant Catholics. Then the Yiddish-speaking Jewish refugees who are pilloried by Jewish anarchists waving bacon butties in their faces and by the Anglo-Jewish elite’s embarrassed call for them to assimilate. And then finally those from Bangladesh which, according to reports, included the new stock character, the hook-handed Muslim cleric. Clearly the Bangladeshis – Muslims all – are for Bean forever unassimilable.
We are told nothing of any value about the asylum seekers ‘staging’ the play – bar the fact that they might kick off if they receive adverse decisions on their asylum claims. The indigenous English family at the heart of Bean’s play within a play is shown to be bewildered at the arriving hordes taking their homes, jobs and women. His characters are one-dimensional cardboard cutouts, with no depth and no facet other than their nationality. (If the playwright is using stereotypes to challenge the audience’s own, he fails miserably.)
The play does actually seem to say that some England People can be far from Nice. Scenes of racist mob violence against the latest newcomers were merrily depicted. An Irish baby is flung from a window by rampaging English mobs. And a stoical pub landlord keeps beating a drum down the generations, altering his cry to suit the times: ‘Fucking Frogs’, ‘Fucking Irish’, ‘Fucking Yids’. But this individual racism is not being condemned but rather explained away as an inevitable reaction from hard-pressed and essentially tolerant Brits pushed beyond endurance by wave after wave of foreign immigrants.
That the National Theatre has seen fit to extend the run of England People Very Nice is disturbing. The argument rumbles on as to whether the play is racist, but one thing is for sure, this is a bad play: boring, badly acted, with poor dialogue and, in the humble opinion of these reviewers, no humour. The fact that most of the (mainly White) audience found Bean’s (alleged) jokes funny was even more disturbing. You could be mistaken for thinking that England People Very Nice was written as BNP propaganda. Bean’s play is like a badly drawn cartoon that does not deal with any of the issues around migration and integration that it claims it will do.
In a Guardian interview (28 January 2009) Bean says about immigration: ‘The British don’t know how to talk about it … You go to a dinner party and raise the subject of immigration, and immediately you’re the rightwing loony.’ You said it. And the proof is in the pudding – a play by a rightwing loony.
Guardian interview with Richard Bean