Three's Company Blog

England Person Inspire Controversy… we join the debate!

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!

Posted in Debate | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

One Response to England Person Inspire Controversy… we join the debate!

  1. Kathleen says:

    “England People Very Nice” is stirring at the moment, and it saddens me to see how people get easily offended.
    I have read the play and of course, the use of the word “nigger” brings a feeling of uneasiness. And how better to deal with this feeling than laugh? I don’t necessarily say it is the right behaviour, however, it has often been seen that people react this way to counter tension. This word carries so much weight for western cultures, given we were the instigators of slavery, that it makes us feel uncomfortable. Reading it was already quite an experience, making me feel bad for the people who are reminded of a dark past, so I can imagine how it comes across live. But once again, laughter is a way to release nervousness, even more so in theatre where the experience is soon the spot and direct.
    Furthermore, the play ridicules everybody at a point, and the English are not spared. They are held responsible for a lot of the latent racism that exists today. And they should not be excused easily, for they were conquerors and as all conquerors, they have forced their supremacy upon others. I know how it is, being myself from a French colony in the South Pacific. And believe me, French from the main land do not welcome French from outside that warmly. However, I don’t actually care that much about it. I care more about how all the people I meet welcome me as an individual than as a nationality and bearer of a specific culture.
    So why get so offended by an ironic, sarcastic depiction of the English society? Doesn’t it mean that some people are still not quite comfortable with their past? That they haven’t gotten over it? And what does it say about our future as the most evolved animals of the food chain? If art will have to take into account everyone’s unresolved problems with their past, first, it won’t be possible for authors to create since they will almost always offend someone; second, it will lose its position as catalyst for debate, reflection and change by not being thought-provoking anymore. We don’t go see plays or movies to have them comfort us in our opinions, on the contrary, we expect them to show us a little bit more of who we are.
    And that is what this play does. It points out our prejudices, the stereotypes we put on each other, to make us realise that not all is perfect in our world and there is still a lot of work to be done to help the future generations live more in harmony. Not something that we are doing now, definitely. So to me, talking about identities and nationalities goes against building peace, because everybody wants to hold on to their cultures without allowing any space for others. Why are we still fighting in the name of religion, or a feud that started centuries ago and for which we don’t even know the reasons anymore? Why are we still so frightened by each other, by our differences when it could actually help us improve everyone’s position in life? Why are we not still able to listen to each other in a debate, yet we have learnt from the past that talks bring understanding and compromise in a way that fighting never will? Why always more violence, imposing our ideas, restricting others’ freedom?
    I am French but mixed, with some French of course, Vietnamese, Arab and Melanesian (the original population of my island). So where do I stand in the fight for identity and culture? Of course, I have been raised as French so that would be it, but shouldn’t I get offended all the time? I just don’t because, to me, belonging to one culture is not interesting. I enjoy getting the best from what each lifestyle has to offer. I am interested in people as individuals with diverse experiences. It is about observing, processing and making concepts, philosophies, your own with respect to others.
    The play also demonstrates our lack of compassion for each other, when the first migrants reject the newcomers, forgetting that not too long ago, they were in the same position, going through the same hardship. Again, it is racism, not from the main population, but from minorities to minorities. So why get angry at the truth and create a scapegoat? What do we have to hide as minorities seeking a better future in a new country? Therefore, is it lack of compassion, or is it actually our primitive, territorial side (feature we find in different groups of animals) that prevents us from welcoming and sharing? I am not saying I am an expert at it, far from it. I am just trying to understand and become better at it.

    Concerning immediacy in theatre, where do you guys think it could en up in a performance, since during a platform turned into a debate, there was no space for anyone else to express their opinions given one person monopolized the conversation? Do you think it would turn out as a fight of words and swearing amongst the audience, keeping the play from moving forward, or that it could be contained enough as to go on and deliver the author’s thoughts? It would be truly interesting to have the experience.

    One more question: don’t you think that if you feel offended by an act or a word, it means you are not completely comfortable with your past, history and who you have become? You can certainly disagree, but being offended is a strong feeling that makes you feel disgusted about others almost to the point of rejection. However, are you rejecting them or some personal issues you haven’t resolved yet, or you can’t bother to deal with just yet, and that are coming back to haunt you through their own perception of who you are?
    I sympathize with the people who have been abused by the western governments for their own profits, but you have to overcome this feeling of being a victim to show them you are not what they hold you to be. You are only a victim if you let people consider you as such. And it is a weak position.

    Kathleen

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