I finally went to see the play which has caused a national controversy in the UK recently - England People Very Nice, staged at London's National Theatre, written by Richard Bean and directed by the NT's very own Nicholas Hytner. The run continues into August 2009.
The play gallops through a comedic portrayal of successive waves of immigrant communities in the East End of London. It lampoons either the communities, or the stereotypes of the communities (depending on which side of the controversial fence you sit). To do this it romps through the arrival of the French Huguenots in the late 1590s, the Jews in the 1800s, the Irish over the 19th and 20th centuries, and finally the Bengali Muslims in the late 2oth century. The action is giddily fast-paced, with spoofy, Monty-Pythonesque styled-moments. Typical of its content is the following 'quip' by one of the characters:
"Irish and Jewish, that’s the worst mix. You end up with a family of pissed up burglars run by a clever accountant." Hmm.
Much has been said and written about the play – watch it being discussed here (pretty damning on the unsophistication of the play) and read Alibhai-Brown's more considered review here (ok, I agree with lots she says) - some want it banned because they think it’s racist (Muslims have been the most vocal); some think it is an unsavoury play and are ambivalent about it but would nevertheless support its right to be staged, and yet others think it is a statement about the failure of multiculturalism and are enjoying seeing the liberal world squirm. [Picture above: Trevor Laird and Fred Ridgeway in Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice at the National Theatre]
I guess I fall nearest to the middle category – I enjoyed some parts of it (eg. how chicken tikka masala was invented, the Noel Coward-style Bengali and other ‘goodness gracious me’ moments), felt uncomfortable about others (eg, the mainly white middle-class audience falling about laughing at when the ‘n-word’ was used or the comedic portrayal of the incestuous rape of Irish women) and yet enjoyed being challenged about articulating what I thought about the play and the act of staging it.
I begin from the position that I believe in people being able to say (and here, stage) things that I don’t agree with. The next step must be to discuss it. I think, though, in reacting to the material, the context is the key, isn't it? I mean, what reception would the ethnic-specific material of Jackie Mason, Sanjeev Bhasker and Chris Rock receive if delivered by someone not from that community? Have we moved on enough so that we can feel comfortable about 'ethnic lampooning' being delivered from outside of the relevant communities?
I could go on this, and about storyline and characters, and about censorship and offence but don’t have time! If you've seen it, tell me what you think. Ultimately, the play is not going to go down as a classic - it is not a big play but it certainly throws up a lot of issues – it dramatises in pockets of moments the debates swirling around society, immigration, race, culture and stereotypes, nation and values. And as to what the ‘message’ of the play was (yes, I know there doesn’t have to be a message), perhaps it was the reply of the 1950s ‘Dixon of Dock Green’-style policeman to when one of the lead Bengali characters proclaims ‘England People Very Nice’: ‘well, there’s good and bad in every kind of people’ (to paraphrase).