England People Very Nice Production PhotoThe National Theatre is billing England People Very Nice, the first show of 2009 to offer Travelex £10 tickets, as playwright Richard Bean’s state-of-the-nation play. Well, according to Bean, the state of the nation is the same as always: reactionary and xenophobic.

Covering four waves of immigration – French Huguenots, Irish, Jews and Bangladeshis – Bean points a flashing neon finger the size of
the Olivier Theatre at our national tendency towards intolerance.

The play does a great job putting the problems of today’s multicultural London in perpsective, as each generation of immigrants eventually integrates into British life and then takes its turn oppressing the next. It’s enough to make anyone wonder why we’re still considered a go-to nation for anyone fleeing persecution and adversity.

Yet Bean somehow houses this damning admonishment in an epic, centuries-spanning romantic comedy, throughout which the successive reincarnations of a pair of lovers try again and again to love one another despite cultural divides and running gags. And as if that plot weren’t enough, it is itself embedded in a fairly iffy piece of metatheatre.

The immigrants in the detention centre in 2009, you see, have devised the centuries-spanning romantic comedy while waiting on their applications for leave to remain. At its best, this framing device salts the open wound of British hypocrisy: citizenship exams, testing the loyalty of potential immigrants to the nation that banged them up as soon as they arrived? Such exquisite irony. So quintessentially British.

But the cynic in me can’t help seeing the play-within-a-play as a Get Out Of Jail Free card Bean dealt to himself under the table, allowing him to neatly sidestep criticism with the excuse, “that’s how the characters would have devised it.” And at its worst, the device is a megaphone through which Bean can announce (in case we’re a little slow on the uptake) that it doesn’t matter if a character lives through the Blitz and still looks twenty-five in 2009, because that’s the magic of theatre.

England People Very Nice Production Photo 3The comedy does work. It tempers the worthier observations and keeps the play from turning into art as social work for the nation. So does the star-cross’d romance. After all, the truest measure of a country’s receptiveness to new cultures is the rate of intermarriage. But I don’t need Olivia Colman’s immigration officer Philippa to face front and tell me so before I can appreciate the point.

Bean could do with worrying a little less about whether people will pick up on his meaning. It’s clear enough without all the highlighting, and in overclarifying himself, he runs the risk of closing down alternative interpretations, yanking the subtext into the foreground and robbing the play of depth.

8 Responses to “England People Very Nice”

  1. TheatreGoer69

    2009-02-16T09:58:23+00:00

    The Guardian Online is trying hard to raise the profile of the critical response to this production and I’m not convinced that intentions are entirely genuine. What wrangles most is the combination of ‘sloganistic’ and misleading titles such as “The National Theatre’s new play is racist” instead of the full article title “Why the National Theatre’s new play is racist and offensive” with the general editorial choice of publishing scathing articles without any counterpoint opinion. Does someone at the Guardian see another ‘Behzti’ in the making here? God forbid.

    Yes of course the Guardian blogs provide a platform for independent writers to reach a wider audience and such is the case of Hussain Ismail’s article, one of the main pieces of criticism against the Bean/Hytner creation – and that’s a very good thing. But how conscious was Mr. Ismail of contributing to the Guardian’s commercial agenda (framing controversy for web traffic + ad revenue) at the time of emailing his article to the editor?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2009/feb/13/national-theatre-play-racist

    As for the play, I wasn’t impressed either. I’m just pleased that I saw it ‘untainted’ – i.e. before the mainstream media launched its cash for controversy campaigns.

  2. Matt Boothman

    2009-02-16T10:18:44+00:00

    The Observer’s Susannah Clapp actually defends England People Very Nice from the ‘racist’ labels applied by Hussain Ismail (and the Evening Standard’s Nicholas De Jongh, amongst others) here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/feb/15/england-people-very-nice-review

    Regardless of any hidden agenda The Guardian may have in posting these vitriolic points and counterpoints, I’m happy to see that the play is encouraging a high-profile public debate on multiculturalism. It makes broad statements on controversial topics, engendering strong agreement or disagreement but never apathy or indifference; I’d like to think that’s why Nicholas Hytner chose to stage and direct it, rather than because of any artistic merit (because as I and others have said, its artistic merit is questionable at best).

    • TheatreGoer69

      2009-02-16T11:16:50+00:00

      I’m all for debate, always will be. It’s the way debates are shaped and engineered with hidden commercial agendas that troubles me. Part of the reason why I like this blog is that it is (or at least appears to be) independent from corporate funding.

  3. Andrew Eglinton

    2009-02-16T12:28:59+00:00

    @TheatreGoer69 I can’t really see the point you’re trying to make here. Are you suggesting that a commercial publication is not a valid platform for debate?

    • TheatreGoer69

      2009-02-17T07:19:54+00:00

      I should apologise for the somewhat facile interjections above and explain my position in more detail.

      I have a fair amount of managerial experience in the publishing industry. I’ve sat on a number of editorial boards and committees over the years, and for a brief time, I chaired the board of a sizeable arts organisation. Since retirement, I have switched from being a producer to a consumer of information. I have a healthy infatuation with the theatre and I now have time for long walks with my two Labradors, but that’s by the by.

      Now perhaps I’m being overly sensitive or out of touch, but I have witnessed first hand the consequences of corporate strategy on shaping cultural content. However it is only very recently, with the sudden rise of the Internet, that I have begun to think about how this strategy also influences public debate.

      That Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice has stirred debate is fantastic, and I wholeheartedly agree with Matt Boothman on that point. That attempts have been made by the mainstream media to corner and house that debate, without the disclosure of ulterior strategic motives is something I find increasingly intolerable – particularly when it plays a role in forming people’s opinions of the production. This latter claim is corroborated in the comment section to the aforementioned article by Hussain Ismail.

      The more I consider the astonishing potential for shared experience, mutual understanding and meaningful collaboration that the Internet faciliates, the more I am convinced that non-funded, independent and impartial websites should house these interactions.

      • Stephen Pitchers

        2009-02-17T08:59:14+00:00

        @TheatreGoer69 I agree that there are sensitive ethics surrounding the hosting of any public debate; a conscious reader surely questions the intention, the editorial judgments and perspective taken. But I don’t really understand your ideal…

        “non-funded, independent and impartial websites”

        Surely unavoidably, all websites are funded, dependent and partial? Especially when they are hosting the voices of funded, depentent and partial people. So long as the platform is accessible to all and uncensored, I don’t see the problem.

        This would be different if you revealed to us all a link between Hussain Ismail and the NT PR department. It would make quite the scoop. And no doubt the guardian would (quite rightly) deem it ‘news-worthy’, give it a head line and a comments field…

  4. Matt Boothman

    2009-03-03T07:26:06+00:00

    The debate continues and evolves:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/mar/02/protest-national-theatre-play-row

    To paraphrase: Hussain and a friend, Keith Kinsella, barged onstage during an after-show discussion in order to … call Richard Bean a racist again. Clearly he decided that the readership of Guardian Blogs was not a large enough audience for his grievances (though I’m a white middle-class male, so my having enjoyed the production in the least makes me a racist too, and thus my opinions are invalid).

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