by Mary Jackson (August 2009)
Last week I saw Pornography. Too much information, you may be thinking, or perhaps you already know that Pornography is the name of a new play by Simon Stephens, currently running at the Tricycle Theatre in north London. I knew better than to expect any real pornography; it wouldn’t do for a cutting-edge play to have a title that told you what it was about. Benedict Nightingale in The Times:
Don’t put on your dirty mac and pant and grunt your way to Kilburn, because Simon Stephens’s play isn’t aimed at the onanistic classes. Rather, it’s an impressionistic portrait of 7/7 London that brings onstage a cross-section of citizens none of whom, bar the suicide bomber himself, is directly affected by that day’s attacks. Indeed, Pornography is the most puzzling title of a play since David Mamet inscrutably named his Hollywood satire Speed-the-Plow.
The Independent’s Michael Coveney declares: “The title refers to how we might view things, not what they are,” an explanation that provokes a sage nod, but doesn’t enlighten. I suspect the real reason the play is called Pornography is to sell tickets. Stephens had to call it something, and “Kerboom!” would have been in poor taste.
A play about 7/7 was long overdue. I hoped to recollect in tranquillity the emotions of that day: disbelief, rage, fear for the lives of loved ones, relief when I heard from them, defiance as I spent the evening as planned in the pub, and hope – soon to turn to despair – that at last our Government would see the true face of Islam. Hopes come with fears, and I feared whitewashing and root-causery. My fear was not groundless; shortly after I booked my ticket, the playwright stated that he wanted us to “start thinking of the terrorists as human beings” and the play’s director, Nicholas Kent, agreed: “The only way to prevent things like this is to get inside the minds of these people.” Did he mean the mind of a Jihadist, a mind suffused with Islam? I was sceptical, and wrote in my July piece:
It all depends what “understanding” is on offer. If we are served up the usual cheap fare of “root causes” – “Palestine”, “racism” or most laughably “poverty” - then the play will be thin gruel indeed. But if we see Islam in action and its appeal to the pampered, belligerent youth, with his mediocre mind and inflated sense of entitlement, then there will be much to chew on. Let us not forget that Islam spread at the hands of vicious, vacuous young thugs, fuelled by testosterone and greed. Gangsta rap, rather than Mozart, is the fitting background music for Islam…We must know our enemy and our enemy is human.
So, were my hopes realised and my fears confounded? Or did I leave the theatre angry and cheated? Sadly neither – the play tried to show the ordinary and the extraordinary, failed at both and fell between two stalls.
The extraordinary is 7/7. The ordinary is London, young and old, good and bad, going about its business. And ordinary London was the target. A play about 7/7 should make this target believable. Does it? Benedict Nightingale thinks so:
The most surprising of the … characters is a troubled girl who seduces her brother and then tries unsuccessfully to make him watch X-rated stuff on TV.
Just an everyday story of metropolitan folk, then.
It’s the interlocking tales of the bomber’s potential victims that mostly matter. The widow who “doesn’t see anyone, doesn’t speak to anyone”. The secretary who, upset by a rude boss, faxes trade secrets to a rival. The university lecturer who makes a clumsy pass at the former student who wants his help in getting a job. The violently racist schoolboy obsessed with a teacher. Stephens’s choice of Londoners seems so arbitrary that you wouldn’t be surprised if it included a banker waving his bonus cheque or Bob Crow complaining that something other than a strike had halted the Tube trains.
But that’s surely the point. The bombers came indiscriminately to kill the just and unjust, wise and foolish, young and old, anyone trying simply to get on with his or her life.
If that is “the point”, the characters should come to life, and with one exception, they didn’t. This is not the fault of the actors, but of the script. The black secretary was colourless and the quarrel with her boss poorly sketched - and did people still fax in 2005? Of the university lecturer and student Michael Coveney writes: “I sensed Stephens trying to re-write David Mamet's Oleanna while sculpting his text; that’s another play.” So what’s it doing in this one? The schoolboy had a one-note, whiney voice and his “racism” was boilerplate. Are we supposed to see this talking-doll racism as explaining or excusing the behaviour of the killers? Who knows, and who cares? As for the bonking brother and sister, they are “surprising” only in the sense of surprisingly dull. A bit of bickering, a bit of banal chit chat were not enough to justify their inclusion, so let’s spice it up with incest. But this spice is a cheap, supermarket curry powder – incest has been done to death on Brookside and other TV soaps. Phèdre it ain’t. “Sam Spruell is bravely naked and eloquent in his role as the brother,” gushes Coveney. He acted well, but to be eloquent he would need some decent lines. And what’s brave about a handsome young actor taking his clothes off in unshockable Kilburn?
Perhaps the playwright tried to spread himself too thinly; it takes skill to make a character convincing with only a few lines. It can be done, however, and the lonely widow, superbly acted by Sheila Reid, succeeded where the others failed. With the quiet desperation of the English – especially of her generation – she clung to her sanity, one minute seeing her dead husband in a much younger man, the next minute realising how absurd this was and how eccentric she must appear to others. I wish we had seen more of her and less – or none – of the others.
While the Londoners played out their less than convincing roles, the suicide bomber advanced upon London, travelling down from the north with three invisible companions. So why did he speak with a London accent? More importantly by far, why did he say nothing about the Koran, Allah, Jihad or even Jews? Are only white schoolboys allowed to be racist? Of course he would say nothing to his fellow passengers or it would blow his cover, but he was thinking aloud – about his desire to wipe “fat little pigs with dazzled-up boob tubes and miniskirts off the skin of the world.” The urge was apparently motiveless. Perhaps it just popped into his head one day; he could just as easily have decided to screw his boss, or his teacher, or his sister or a husband long gone. After all, isn’t everybody – every Londoner at least – a little mad? "Each of the seven parts," says the author in this interview, "Is built around an act of transgression." The bomber transgressed a bit too far, that's all. It could happen to anyone.
This message – that we are all equally mad, bad, and dangerous to blow – was perhaps unintended, but it shows a muddled mind. The same muddle has led our Government to broaden its Prevent strategy to include “extremists of all kinds”, so as not to single out the single group whose religion commands war on infidels for as long as it takes.
This was a play, not a lecture on Islamic Jihad, and its focus was mainly on characters other than the suicide bomber. But for that suicide bomber, who lived and breathed Islam, worshipped Allah and killed himself in the name of Allah, not once to mention Allah, shows the playwright to be a coward, a fool or worse. For all its racy title, its incest and its full-frontal male nudity, Pornography is limp.
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