By Michael Kustow
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National Debate

This article is over 16 years, 9 months old
David Edgar's drama Playing with Fire was attacked by critics. In this counterblast, theatre producer Michael Kustow argues Edgar is the Dickens of our stage.
Issue 301

The National Theatre under its director Nicholas Hytner has paid fierce attention to the sore points of the body politic – privatised railways (David Hare’s The Permanent Way), the invasion of Iraq (Hare’s Stuff Happens), the updating of classics (Shakespeare’s Henry V in the era of the Gulf wars) and, in Mike Leigh’s recent 2,000 Years, the effect on one Jewish family of the erosion of Zionism, the occupation of Iraq and the tug of war between rationality and religious belief.

The play’s the thing

In the third year of a sponsorship with the foreign exchange company Travelex, making no concessions to its backers, the National offers £10 tickets – which has made the audience, many seeing theatre for the first time, young and more ethnically diverse. Democratisation is afoot at the National.

But note, I say ‘political play’, not ‘political theatre’. As New Labour’s machinery of control and spin tightens the space left for public debate and discourse, there’s been a lot of ‘political theatre’ about, seeking to fill the void in public life. It’s almost become a genre you dare not criticise because of its admirable intentions: the ‘tribunal’ plays at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre, the latest about Bloody Sunday; My Name is Rachel Corrie at the Royal Court; Guantanamo at the Tricycle and then New York; The Arab/Israeli Cookbook at the Gate, Notting Hill.

All these, and many others about headline topics, have been examples of ‘political theatre’, adaptations of transcripts or ‘verbatim theatre’ drawn from documentary. When I speak of a ‘political play’, however, I am seeking a play that has passed through the imagination of an individual playwright, that goes beyond instant news, that remembers a history and broods upon a future.

David Edgar’s Playing With Fire does just this, with a long memory and a sharply critical intelligence. In terms of subject matter and topic, it deals with top-down New Labour ‘modernisation’ of local government, the politics of race, and the emergence of an initially plausible new right.

A woman civil servant, Alex Clifton (Emma Fielding), is despatched from chilly Whitehall to sort out a ‘failing’ council in the north, with a complete kit of textbook remedies. Edgar has an acute ear for New Labour argot – ‘senior management training, neighbourhood partnerships, diversity criteria’ and the like. This appals council leader George Aldred (David Troughton, all northern bonhomie and quick patter to cover up shortcomings in City Hall).

David Edgar is the Dickens of our stage, and that’s not just because his most popular success was an adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. In this play’s opening scenes in his fictional borough of Wyverdale, he lays out a gallery of recognisable local government types: Arthur, pipe-puffing, walrus-moustached, trenchant, chair – though soon to be renamed cabinet member – for housing; Jack, social services, an embittered Scot; Frank, education, a soft spoken retired headteacher; Riaz and Anwar, Asian Labour councillors. Their initial meeting with the Islington-smart Alex is a chaos of cellphones, cross-talk and digression, and Michael Attenborough directs this, and all the big scenes of this demanding play, with skill and wit. The scene is an encounter of New Labour’s prissy world of flow-charts and packages with the unruly energies of local government.

Not all of these energies are benevolent. ‘Clearing up’ council tax returns and rates benefits, Alex becomes aware of the segregated enclaves of Wyverdale, underscored by its housing policy and made worse by a zone of prostitution and drug dealing. Sensing she must show she can do something as well as preach, she institutes small but effective changes – and is attracted by widowed Asian councillor Riaz Rafique. Their personal relationship is buffeted by the external and public events of the play – identity, community, multiculturalism and the hold of a community over its members.

For it is Edgar’s skill in this many-layered play to allow these subjects to sidle and then crash in, as it were, to a play about New Labour modernisation. At the end of a grotesque meeting where the councillors are belaboured by management mantras – ‘Take an obstacle and turn it into a path’ – Les and Shirley, two rather disquieting members of a fascist party called Britannia who are ‘profiting’ from the ‘dispersal’ and rehousing of asylum seekers from Kent, introduce themselves, briefly but alarmingly.

Stealing a lead

The two strands of the play soon change place. First, in an awkward, touching cave-in, George and his Labour colleagues accept Alex’s recommendations, including paying high fees for ‘member training’ and hiring expensive consultants, funding multilingual leaflets while closing children’s homes. Immediately, a scene in which an affair between Alex and Riaz looks as if it would blossom is interrupted by a call – a young white man has been killed by Asian youths. The first act ends with an ecumenical ‘Holocaust Day’ meeting to remember the dead, including the young white man. The ‘Britannia’ people seize the mike, while Frank, discontented at being sacked to make way for Riaz in the new post of ‘lifelong learning’, icily threatens that he will not take his dismissal from the council lying down, and will stand as an independent, challenging them from the right.

In part two of his play, Edgar radically changes form and structure. It opens, nine months after the action of part one, with a judicial inquiry into the events of a massive riot in the streets of Wyverdale (modelled on the riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford in 2001). The tribunal gives us an overview of the events of that inflamed weekend. No one knows how the conflagration started, and everyone has a theory about why it happened and who profited from it – above all, the icy ex-headteacher who, we learn, was elected as mayor with full executive powers on a ‘populist’ platform.

And for the final act, Edgar does a theatrical U-turn, rewinding to the night of the riots themselves, letting us experience them in real time, and literally from within – from the foyer of the George Hotel, its front doors locked against the arsonists and looters. This long final scene is one of Edgar’s most impressive – people desperately attempt to make sense of the imploding, out of control events, while being buffeted by their jolts and reverberations. All the forces in the play are brought together – the old-style councillors celebrating St George’s Day as a multi-faith event, the sourly confident mayoral candidate who knows he will be elected and that this disorder only plays into his hand (‘They told us we would be Islington, and we turned out to be Beirut’), the enraged Asian kids flung in from the tumult outside.

For me, there were two moments in this final scene which stood out. Old Labour leader George, torn apart by the contradictions that have led to this riot, suddenly thinks he sees who is to blame, and drops his trimming and concession-making approach. Standing up to the minister, and reminding him that ‘there was summat called a municipality’, he stumbles into a key truth:

‘We have to match the funds and we have to carry on the youth work and the rehabilitation and the roof when all your cash runs out and where’s that come from?… It comes from things that everybody uses, and swimming baths and libraries and, yes, bloody refuse. And so the folk what votes for us – who “choose us” in “the democratic marketplace” – these people can and do legitimately ask: if all we’re doing’s holding out the bowl for someone else’s ladle, if we’re not actually responsible for owt, then who gives a toss who runs the borough anyway?’

That seems close to the heart of the play, the breakout of a shattered man, his hope and socialism, albeit on a municipal scale, broken down by the dogma of centralisation and New Labour modernity but unable to relinquish all his socialist – even his ‘direct democracy’-convictions.

Alex is out of her depth. She had started the play with crisp certainties, expressed in terms of foreign wars, knowing that it’s only a partial analogy. Dealing with these failing governments, she tells us and her colleagues that there are three options: (1) The Polish option – tell them what to do and use the tanks to force them to do it; (2) The Czechoslovak option – persuade them to believe in what you want them to do, with the threat of tanks in the wings; (3) The Indochinese option – get sucked into a quagmire.

By the end Alex is accused by George of following ‘the Kosovo option’: ‘You do the right thing from the best of motives. But you do it from a height of 15,000 feet. Which means you store us up all kinds of trouble for the future. And why do you do that? Simple. If you’re that far, we can’t fire back at you.’

These are trenchant examples of Edgar’s internationalism, bringing the perspectives of European and global power play that he has explored in his most recent plays to bear on little emblematic Wyverdale.

When push comes to shove, Playing With Fire, although it is often funny and always quick-witted, is a desolate play about the meltdown of all our politics in the fire of racial conflict. As so often in genuinely new and exploratory writing, what is really happening is often ahead of the audience’s expectations. That is the definition of a vanguard work. Our theatre, despite its love affair with dramatised journalism, doesn’t help audiences read the twists and turns of characters’ destinies and the ironies of an action. In the movies, with their narrators and time-shifts, we accept much more agile storytelling.

Yet Edgar, who has learned from Ibsen the master play-builder, has every piece of thought, confrontation, back story and emotion in place. He makes it clear from the start, by having Alex narrate the story in the past, that he is going to manipulate tenses. In Act Two this enables him to display considerable political complexity and motive. This is more honest than any tub-thumbing didactic play giving a single cause for race riots, community and fundamentalism – terms which are now so shop-worn they have lost meaning.

Each of the political forces seems trapped. Old Labour may have been prejudiced (producing segregated housing estates) and at times corrupt, but they are now in disarray, decimated by the Local Government Act 2000 undermining their authority, and thrashing about like beached whales in the world of management-speak and acronyms.

The business-system discourse, which at first seems an easy target, horrifyingly reveals itself as the entire hollow truth about New Labour. There’s nothing else there – no vision, only mechanisms. Alex’s declension from free-wheeling enthusiast to a painfully inarticulate woman, realising what violent forces their rational solutions have let loose, painfully tries to spell out a small remaining opportunity to Frank, the impassive fascist. Frank, the self-important mayor elected out of the debris, is the only winner.

In this nightmare of closing doors, perhaps Edgar gives us one opening, and that a brief one. In the tribunal hearing, Fazal, wearing the beard and white robes of the observant Muslim, shouts out in court and confronts the mother of the murdered son. She suddenly sees him as a person, not a stereotype, caving in and granting that ‘you’re right an’ all – things weren’t took off us, we pissed them away’.

She offers to shake his hand. He can’t, of course, because he’s a practising Muslim, and Muslims don’t shake women’s hands. It’s one of the things theatre uniquely can show – a tiny opening, which is soon shut down by the grinding of political and religious wheels.

In the real time replay, ‘six months earlier’, with warring estates and the inner city in flames, Fazal reappears as the clean-shaven member of an amateur Tex-Mex band. He takes a mobile phone call, only to discover that his parents have been killed when their restaurant was torched. The brief scene reveals that, though he has crossed communal lines to play with whites in the band, this white racist murder of his parents will drive him into the arms of his community brotherhood. And that can lead to the self-conviction and the bombs of 7 July.

‘There must be – there always must be – an alternative to going back home to your people,’ cries Alex plaintively at the very end. It is, and feels like, a forlorn hope, and is scarcely an answer to the problems that Trevor Phillips underlined in the week of the play’s opening, when he warned that we are ‘sleepwalking into ghettoes’. But Edgar’s kaleidoscopic play gives more truthful insights into the clashing and competing causes of racial and cultural unrest, and of the political ethos that has nurtured them, than anything since Blair came to power.

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