Theatre Censorship – 32: Political Extremism in Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields

Stephen Poliakoff

Stephen Poliakoff

In comparison with David Edgar’s Destiny, Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields is one stage nearer to reality; although the English People’s Party, which features in the play, does not exist as such, and we know it’s not just another name for the National Front because they also get a mention. By using radio news broadcasts from Doncaster and Newcastle – places that we know do exist – Poliakoff increases the atmosphere of realism.

“Strawberry Fields” tells of the journey made by Charlotte and Kevin, two representatives of the English People’s Party (EPP), from London to the North of England, meeting other party members at pre-arranged spots and distributing leaflets. Things don’t go quite according to plan because a young teacher, Nick, cadges a lift in their van and as he finds out more about them, he tries to undermine their cause and their confidence. At first he only succeeds in being an irritation to them; but after Charlotte shoots the policeman who catches Kevin and Nick raiding a hot dog stall he – unsurprisingly – becomes a nervous wreck who slows them down. Because he witnessed the murder, his presence threatens the as-yet-untarnished reputation of the party; and the play ends with Charlotte’s shooting Nick, symbolising the death of the “reasonable voice” against right-wing extremism.

Poliakoff is a little clearer about the policies and stances of the EPP than Edgar is about Nation Forward in his play Destiny (see previous blog). They seem to have three major political beliefs: they are an ecology party, taking a stand against pollution and the mauling of the countryside; they propose to improve the lives of inner city dwellers by making “urban wastelands” a thing of the past and by improving town planning; and finally, they are opposed to “impersonal government”. None of that sounds very controversial, although they’re light on practical policies. However, one suspects that in order to reduce the “crammed populations in city centres” they would enforce repatriation of all immigrants, creating racial tension and feeding racist tendencies.

Strawberry FieldsEdgar’s play may have a better worked-out structure, and possibly more thoughtful themes, but Poliakoff’s has sharper characterisation. The character of Kevin tells you a lot about why someone might want to join the EPP. Kevin is a romantic at heart; he sees glamour and excitement in the most mundane things and can use language to express the awesomeness of his appreciation. He sees the journey along the motorway as a celebration of the expansiveness of England; the pictures of “landscape with road” which he takes along the way acquire a strange beauty through his eyes. Later, when local activist Mrs Roberts and Charlotte are discussing political matters and Nick is concentrating on the fruit machine, Kevin romanticises about an open air concert which he has suddenly remembered: “there were jugglers, people lighting bonfires along the way, sword swallowers, a whole fayre”. The use of the word “fayre” with its archaic spelling summons up everything that is beautiful and traditional about England; at this stage of the play Kevin’s idealism has not yet been shattered. Unfortunately, because of his blindness, both actual and metaphorical, Kevin cannot discern the beautiful from the ugly. He romanticises equally keenly about the sordid horror films that run through his brain and which he almost believes he can project onto walls, so vivid is his imagination: “he blows his head off, and it bursts open, it bursts right open, splashes all over them… they throw him into a dust-cart shredder, you know, and he’s squashed, and eaten, and shredded up, you know, by the spikes, screaming his head off, screaming so loudly, really loudly, and they pick up little pieces of him, they do, collect him in their hands. RAW PIECES OF HIM. YOU SAW IT.” Steady, Kevin.

So Kevin’s blindness, coupled with his love of all things “fayre”-like, creates a right-wing desire to return to the England which has not been ruined by modern technological and sociological developments. Nick realises the danger of the “grenade in the hamburger box”, the evidence of warfare peddled out in a most acceptable and convenient form, which has infiltrated the country. Lurking similarly beneath the surface are the many party members who do not necessarily make their activity in politics obvious, but who, according to Nick, can still supply Charlotte with arms and ammunition wherever she goes.

Mrs Roberts, for example, is a pleasant, perfectly ordinary woman, who shares the same anxieties as most people about missing coaches to Preston and what to cook for her family that evening. Her story about suspecting the presence of a bomb behind the radiator shows her paranoia about safety and her need to be on guard against all forms of terrorism. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it has also turned her into a nervous wreck. Nick remarks: “she’s the sort of person that thinks there are bombs and landmines in every litter bin, illegal immigrants everywhere, drugs in the lining of every car, isn’t she?” Her anxiety has made her extreme, for she believes that the people who make her nervous should be punished severely: “I really think people who… leave bombs and think up these terrible hoaxes, have to be really dealt with now. I think they have to be shot really, don’t they? Shot on sight.” Mrs Roberts’ form of justice is clinical and unforgiving: shoot first, ask questions afterwards. Her obsession with it is shown by her keeping a book of cuttings from newspapers, illustrating the points she likes to make and the beliefs she holds. For instance, she refers to a Mr Relph, who was a real person in real life, who came from Leamington and wasn’t a creation of Poliakoff, who insisted that his house was only for sale to a white English family. He advertised it as such, and was subsequently prosecuted under the Race Relations Act. By introducing real references such as this, Poliakoff clearly places the play within our world and is not a mere work of fantasy. Mrs Roberts is also a member of the National Front – again real – an organisation, according to Charlotte, which is led by “pathetic nonentities”.

Jane Asher as Charlotte in Strawberry Fields

Jane Asher as Charlotte in the original National Theatre production

Charlotte herself is the embodiment of the terror that lurks beneath the surface, the grenade in the hamburger box. Whilst appearing a gentle, well-mannered, friendly (to Kevin), tasteful young lady, she is, in fact, pure terrorist through and through, using a gun, she says, as protection against the armed left-wing groups sweeping the country. She doesn’t see the irony that, by doing so, she has become a member of an armed right-wing group. She feels she has no choice but to shoot the policeman because she does not want the party to be involved in anything illegal which might damage its reputation. Of course, shooting the policeman, and later Nick, compound the problem; they are actions far worse than simply raiding a hot dog van. Her absolute confidence about using her gun – not merely as a bluff – also shows that she has no compunction about taking the law into her own hands, positively advocating anarchy; nothing is ever going to defeat her. It might be an ominous warning that Charlotte predicts guerrilla-style warfare within two years. The play’s grim view of the future can only be averted by tolerance and understanding, and Poliakoff’s hope is for a more moderate trend in politics in the future. Sadly, from today’s point of view, I’m not sure the evidence is there to support it.

Destiny and Strawberry Fields are, I feel, two great examples of highly contemporary plays that simply would not have been possible under the regime of the censor. It would be fascinating to see them revived.

We’re coming in to the home straight now! In my next blog I’ll be starting our look at that famous cause célèbre of the 1980s, The Romans in Britain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.