Multicultural burrowing strategy
Mike Belbin reviews Kwame Kwei-Armahs Seize the day Tricycle Theatre (ends December 19)
As the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, not even Nick Griffin would deny that we live in a culturally diverse society. If London is not ‘British’, as Griffin announced the day after Question time, then the same goes for the places where most people live in the UK. Drama that does not represent this diversity, in some way, is a lie. The Tricycle Theatre, on the other hand, declares that its ‘Not black and white’ season aims to take a look at this society from the perspective of black writers.
Famous for its transcript reconstruction of inquiries such as those into Bloody Sunday and the Stephen Lawrence case, the Tricycle commissioned three dramatists: Roy Williams of the Royal Court and National, Bola Agbaje, Evening Standard most promising playwright of 2008, and the writer with the highest profile, Kwame Kwei-Armah. Kwei-Armah’s 2003 play Elmina’s kitchen was transferred from a run at the National to the West End. Since then, he has won various awards both as writer and actor. His TV drama Walter Tull has recently been nominated for the Prix Euro IRIS award and he is familiar onscreen for his acting in Casualty (BBC1), his documentary series On tour with the queen (Channel 4) and his many appearances on Newsnight review and the Culture show. Kwei-Armah also writes regular columns for The Guardian and pieces for The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and New Statesman. Literally and figuratively, he is one of the most recognisable black voices in British life.
In the Tricycle programme, Kwei-Armah states that Seize the day was inspired by the election of Barack Obama: “Boris Johnson had shown us,” he writes, “that one can simply walk off the street with no previous experience in this scale of management” and become mayor of a large city. In the play, Jeremy Charles (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) is a black TV reporter, with neither experience of editing the Spectator nor being an MP. He does have one advantage: he is a celebrity, having slapped down a young man taking part in a street brawl while doing a piece to camera. We see a recording of this impressing public incident on a large screen over the stage.
A group of political PRs led by Howard Jones (Karl Collins) and Jennifer Thompson (Jaye Griffiths) think Jeremy has the makings of a mayoral candidate, attractive to all crime-sensitive Londoners but mainly to the 40%-45 % of the city who now identify themselves as members of an ethnic minority. In the weeks leading up to the announcement of his candidature, only Jeremy, it appears, can stop Jeremy - by a gaffe or by stepping down. Jeremy however has taken on another responsibility: he has joined a probation scheme to ‘mentor’ the youth he slapped down, Lavelle (Aml Ameen). At first, his faith in Lavelle, and himself, is shaken when the boy seems to take revenge by robbing or setting up a robbery of Jeremy’s house. Later still, Lavelle asks him to help a relative, someone who has been detained by the Israelis while acting as a ‘witness’ on the West Bank. Jeremy, initially overjoyed at being a possible candidate, must decide whether he will finally go for being mayor or wade into the deep waters of helping someone in a way that might not be exactly politic.
Kwei-Armah directs his own play with a feel both for the humorous and pensive moments. It is performed with great brio by a large cast, with Karl Collins too lively to suggest the ice of a Trevor Philips or a Mandelson, but nonetheless a snappy operator. The women in the cast could have been given more to do - even the striking Jaye Griffiths, who would make a great candidate for a play about the next woman PM; Cecilia Noble and Amelia Lowdell play Lavelle’s mother and Jeremy’s distant wife respectively and do a lot with small roles which verge on the stereotypical. Sharon Duncan-Brewster gets a full range out of an underwritten function as Jeremy’s lover. While Aml Ameen is versatile and touching as the most interesting character of all, Lavelle, who is both streetwise (“every day’s a school day”) and celebrity-dazzled.
As Jeremy, Holdbrook-Smith suggests the character’s delight in being the centre of attention, as well as panic at the possibility of others taking advantage. By the end, the candidate does not seem to have learnt much, nor is he bitter. I wished at times that the character could have been more assertive, more sure of what he wanted from things, readier to seize the time rather than just seize the day (the expression ‘carpe diem’ from the poet, Horace, that is - ‘seize today’, or ‘don’t waste time’ - often quoted to mean ‘let’s drink and have fun’ rather than pursue ambition.
Some readers may have seen something like this in movies and TV before: the candidate (or researcher-helper) as a relative innocent caught in the circuits of the political machine: Primary colours, The candidate, Trevor Griffiths’ Bill Brand series in 1976, not forgetting Yes, minister and its ‘strong language’ younger cousin, The thick of it, now on BBC2. Does this production explore anything new in that it is an ‘ethnic’ candidate?
As the play is concerned with the time leading up to Jeremy’s decision whether to run rather than with the campaign, it cannot be accused of neglecting what he might face in other candidates or the media during an election. But then what is the point in ignoring these forces entirely? When Ken Livingstone was prevaricating over whether to run as an independent, he was a topic of intense scrutiny even when saying or doing nothing. The very hint of a candidate with a supposedly sure 40%-45 % electorate would bring outside inspection and pressure. Maybe other parties would start looking for someone other than a blond clown. At least there would be newspaper editorials and TV interviews. It is this kind of external pressure that this stage work excludes, even if it has a screen above it. Black characters converse in rooms, a newspaper that is ‘not the Telegraph’ publishes a rousing article by Jeremy and the team worry about slip-ups.
Of course, there is no discussion of actual policies: this crew is not that radical. Here the play might be presuming two things - that promoting certain ideas is less important than getting a turn at running the state, or that, by definition, a politician is an animal that can only pursue certain things: light-touch market regulation; welfare for the destitute and expensive services for the rest; obeying America; and condemning abuse, while accepting inequality. As a realist exploration of a ‘what if’ premise, the play may not be wrong to assume the latter, though remiss in not pointing it out.
In the Tricycle programme, artistic director Nicolas Kent welcomes the fact that the play “refreshingly did not constantly reference white Londoners and the white establishment”. If Seize the day was about tensions within a community bookshop, maybe that would be justifiable. But electoral politics? It is like examining the career of Ken Livingstone and leaving out Tony Blair, the Evening Standard and the protest vote for Boris Johnson. This need not mean providing a whole lot of non-black roles on stage, but if the play has the diversity, it has ignored the difficulty.
I think Kwei-Armah does take a position, but it is obscured by the drive of the play to celebrate a ‘we can’ idea of black middle class participation in public life. I would say he thinks that what is actually there for the taking is something more modest (or humble): even if you cannot be mayor, you can do something. Jeremy’s journey does lead him to a status where he can consider being helpful to Lavelle’s relative on the West Bank.
Obama was the unity candidate, the peace and reconciliation candidate, attracting black and white voters, low-paid southerners and east coast anti-racists, while in his cabinet there are American Zionists and ‘moderate’ Republicans. He promises consensus, not challenge, responsibly bailing out bankers and keeping up global interventionism (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran …) and at home proposing the compromise of a private-public healthcare system that here would make him a NHS-sceptic.
A drama with a genuine reformist as a candidate - even if only the suggestion that someone such might run - would have been an opportunity to explore the strengths and weaknesses of community politics or the cultural ghetto, and the difficulty of attempting a broader strategy. Yet who thinks that the 40% is homogeneous anyway, a political windfall for a united front? The Socialist Workers Party found to its cost that this was not the case when trying to build one with conservative Muslims. And, of course, you have the basic political bedrock now of widespread cynicism, whatever the colour or culture, which the play all but passes over as well.
Does all this show us anything about the kind of ‘ethnic’ art now commissioned?
Multiculturalism as a political strategy was invented after the Brixton riots of 1981, when Tory minister George Young announced the state’s intention to ‘back the good guys’, warning that if the moderate members of the community ‘don’t deliver’, people will ‘turn to the militants’. Yet maybe this here is its legacy: a cosy cul-de-sac and a burrowing strategy. Reassuring people (and not just black people) that if you just pass your exams, be presentable on TV and support ‘pluralism’, you can get in there and influence the machine towards small changes: some doors are open, even if only to some people. If arts organisations, from ‘accessible’ exhibition spaces to subsidised performance venues, from hybrid music to postcolonial painting, ‘celebrate diversity’, they stay away from difficulty. The test is the silence of the touchy rightwing media. It is sex (pop art porn and ‘paedophile’ photos) that causes a stink now.
So lastly, my advice would be to the Tricycle itself: do not be complacent, use your subsidy. Dramatising transcripts is fine, but in every production, attempt the whole truth and try to cause a stink.