As I sat with Yaz outside the National waiting to go in for the 4th preview of Burnt by the Sun, I heard one of Hussain Ismail‘s companions telling the crowd “I represent the East End and I’m against Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice! Obviously I haven’t seen the production yet…” I knew the guys performing in the show would have some interesting stories after that evenings performance.
What a great thing it is to have a show like this at the UK’s National Theatre. Inspiring debate, and showing up an audience’s prejudice. As one of the actors said after that night’s performance
It’s always interesting to see where and when the audience laughs, ’cause it really does show which bits of all the shit we throw stick to them.
That is, it shows where their prejudices are.
I recently read Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s interesting article on the Independent‘s website. She asks why the National should produce this kind of work, admittedly not admonishing the fact the piece has been created as many others have. Surely, the answer is that the play is intended to reveal to the National’s audiences their personal prejudice (in most cases after they have left the theatre and are on their way home) much in the same way Peter Nichols’ Poppy attacked its – mostly middle class – audience’s personal (and collective) latent racism.
Hussain Ismail’s gripe (when I saw him) specifically with the National was that it was not having a real debate. Mr. Ismail later stormed Richard Bean’s Platform on the 27th (calling him a racist) and called for a chair to be set for him and others and to turn the Platform into a ‘proper debate’. He continued to argue his case for half of the Platform’s allocated time and didn’t let others speak, perhaps a little hypocritical of him? I agree debate should be encouraged, but shouldn’t it include the whole audience, not just one outspoken objector?
Tom told me about Rabina Khan’s letter to the Guardian saying she had read the script and after joining Mr. Ismail’s protest, went to see England People Very Nice and found it considerably more offensive than she first expected. She says:
at one point a character in the play used the term “nigger” and everybody burst out laughing. My daughter asked why people were laughing at the word “nigger”. She understood it to be offensive.
Tom pointed out that this was a strange reason to take umbrage with the production: it was the audience who were acting in a manner she found unacceptable, and which the creators of the work could hardly control. No matter how carefully a writer or director might choose the tone of such a controversial work, an audience with different views/experiences will always have the possibility to alter this – especially in a comedy where they necessarily make such a vocal contribution.
I thought this linked well to the ideas behind our work as a company. The effect our plays have on an audience and their reactions to what they experience have always been our primary focus. This is why comedy (where laughter is both the main aim and something react to) and interactivity (that obviously hangs on the interplay with the audience) have become major areas of our work.
So, a lot of interesting debate has been inspired. This is so essential for the development and continued importance of theatre. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.
Oh and come see me in Burnt by the Sun!