Eye and ben

I dropped round to the National Theatre on my way to Borough Markets and the Tate Modern on Saturday to try and grab a day ticket for a matinee.  Given the choice between Mrs Affleck and the controversial England People Very Nice, I went for the later, thinking that I could compare perspectives on immigration in this contemporary play and Miller’s 1956 New York.

The National holds back about fifty seats for each performance for sale on the day.  They go for ten pounds (limited to two per person).  I arrived at about ten to nine and there were already about twenty five people waiting in line.
Line for day tickets

They sold out by ten.  I imagine on weekdays it would be a bit less busy.  I grabbed a ticket and headed off for a morning of venison burgers and chai, stopping to marvel at a great instillation piece at the Tate Modern.

The National Theatre has a great book shop.  I went back a bit before the play to manhandle the McDonagh section and see if they had the verse edition of A View from the Bridge.

So there I was, minding my own dorky drama business, when I hear a very familiar voice behind me.  I turn half around and find Alan Rickman striding towards the DVD section.  I don’t often recognise celebrities, so I thought I should mark the occasion, and surreptitiously sent a text message to a friend back in Edinburgh.  Just as I pressed send on “I’m standing next to Alan Rickman!” I noticed that Rickman was now actually standing right next to me.  I dropped my phone in my pocket and hid in a copy of Meyerhold: A Life.

In the biography section Meyerhold sits right next to Miller.  I got distracted by all the Miller books  looking for possible clues as to where I could find copies of his working drafts.

Five minutes passed.

Suddenly the shop’s anti-theft alarm went off.  Startled, I flailed my arms ridiculously (somewhat out-of-character for me as I’m not usually afraid of loud noises) and hit the person standing to my left in the stomach with The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller.  I turned to apologise.  Rickman again.

I squeaked.

He said “I’m sorry” (in his deep and distinctive Alan Rickman voice) .

For those unfamiliar with yoof culture, Alan Rickman plays Snape in the Harry Potter movies. This is what he looks like:

Snape

Snape

Scary.

We didn’t have wizard duel. But I reckon I could have taken him out.

England People Very Nice is a terrible play.  It has been criticised as racist, and it is, but that was only the start of my problems with it.  It was also overly didactic (quite an accomplishment for a play that also relied so heavily on bad racial jokes), too long, repetitive and not at all funny.

It’s a great pity, because it is unusual to have a play written for such a large multi-racial cast.  And it was generally well acted, as far as the performances were able to transcend the material.  I recognised some familiar faces – like her and this guy.

Richard Bean builds England People Very Nice from a basic play-within-a-play format – a group of asylum seekers writing and acting about immigration to Bethnal Green through the ages.  This allows the cast to take breaks to make glaringly obvious meta-diegetic comments about the narrative.

“Is this a play about immigration or a play about love?”
“Intermarriage is the first sign of cultural integration.”

The influence of  Caryl Churchill is clearly identifiable in the work, with the director character in the dentention centre flouncing about saying things like “Our characters are children and their playground is time!”  But rather than the archetypal characters exploring changes in attitudes to gender and sexuality like in Churchill’s Cloud Nine, they just behave the same way in each time period they inhabit.  It’s a sad vision.

I wasn’t the only person that didn’t enjoy it.  I overheard two gentlemen talking as we shuffled out:

“I guess it just shows how racist we all are.”
“I don’t think so.  I think that’s the last time June recommends a play to us.  There should be a number we can call that issues a statement letting us know whether or not she’s still sane.”

The play operates under the assumption that if you mock every race and culture you can get away with making stupid jibes like “As Jewish as the hole in the sheet” and “For Jewish people, there’s no smoke without salmon”.

What was particularly disturbing was not the content of the play itself but noticing how and when the audience actually laughed at the poor taste jokes.  I guess it’s my fault for going to see a play described as “A riotous journey through four waves of immigration from the 17th century to today.”
But then again, to quote the play:
“Only a liberal blames himself for getting mugged.”

England People Very Nice
Richard Bean

National Theatre
28/02/2009

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