A touch of magic
The Lady From Dubuque Theatre Royal Haymarket Europe The Pit Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads Hackney Empire
As soon as she arrives everything falls apart. Dame Maggie Smith’s appearance in Edward Albee’s 1980 play The Lady From Dubuque marks the point when it all goes wrong. This isn’t her fault. She’s the most watchable and effective thing on stage and even now, on the fringes of old age, her lazy twangy sexy drawl still has a touch of magic. But her part is a dud cheque. We’ve spent the first act watching a group of drunken sophisticates swapping caustic banter. Sam’s wife Jo is suffering from some lethal disease which frees her from all social constraint and prompts an enjoyable, if undemanding, hour of drawingroom comedy. Enter Elizabeth. She claims to be Jo’s mother even though she looks nothing like her, and Jo, conveniently poleaxed at just the right moment, is too zonked to verify the identification. Sam asks for explanations but Elizabeth gives maddeningly imprecisely answers. ‘Who are you?’ he shrieks long after we’ve realised that he’ll never find out. Elizabeth isn’t a human being but a poetic possibility, a sort of an angel in a Chanel suit sent from heaven to collect Jo’s departing soul. And there’s the problem. God’s errand-girls aren’t like us, they’re not capable of appetite, doubt, moral contradiction, spiritual growth or any of the things that make a character dynamic.
She’s accompanied by Oscar, from the Afro–Caribbean sector of paradise, exquisitely played by Peter Francis James (who sounds like an actor in dire need of a surname). His role is even more unsatisfactory than Dame Maggie’s because as soon as Oscar shows up everyone in the room turns into a tedious racist. Of course Oscar, being a member of the choir invisible, shrugs the ethnic taunts aside. What kind of message is that? Racism can be overcome if black people take the simple precaution of dwelling in eternity. This play is an unfortunate muddle. Albee wants to be symbolic and realistic at the same time and it doesn’t work. Mind you, it’s not nearly as bad as that flipping Goat thing of his a couple of years ago.
Racism again comes under the microscope in the revival of David Greig’s 1994 play Europe. The setting is vague. A railway station in some economic backwater. The factories are laying off workers and a couple of refugees have arrived on Platform One and are cooking an omelette. It’s not hard to guess that the sacked workers and the hungry migrants will collide violently. As in all of Greig’s plays, dislocation is the central theme. He’s good at creating situations that blur the boundaries of place and personality but he’s hopeless at writing a decent storyline. And he tends to build characters out of attitudes.
Everyone in the play represents a point of view or a cluster of habits or affections. Young Adele, the station manageress, bleats on and on about her dream of visiting Europe’s great capitals. But she works on the railway so why doesn’t she just get on a train and shut up about it? Because Greig needs her to hang around the station and initiate a lesbian affair which her boyfriend witnesses and which triggers the climax of the second act in which a certain building, I’d better not say which one, gets firebombed. Oh, OK, it’s the railway station.
The message here (rub eyes, stifle yawn) is that racism is the orphan of ignorance. Theatrical sermonising like this arises from two false assumptions. One is that racist thugs go to the theatre. The other is that a play can change people’s minds. The truth is that the theatre isn’t an instrument of learning but an instrument of prejudice. We bring our culture to it. We don’t take our culture from it.
Roy Williams understands this perfectly. His racism-in-football play, Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, has just finished a national tour. One of the many excellent features of Williams’s writing is that he doesn’t deal in lessons and solutions. He dramatises the sources of conflict and leaves the rest up to the audience. He’s also an entertainer and his laddish love of football comes across as strongly as his distaste for bigotry. I stayed for the post-play discussion which yielded one bizarre irony. Williams was asked why the play concentrates on the attitudes of white people. The questioner was black and the implication was that Williams was pandering to us honkies. So even a black author who writes a play examining antiblack prejudice is considered prejudiced by some black people. Cripes, Roy. You can’t win.