Theatre Censorship – 31: The portrayal of fascism in David Edgar’s Destiny

David Edgar

David Edgar

Karn, the detective in Barrie Keeffe’s Sus (see previous blog), probably wouldn’t care for the political alternatives offered in both David Edgar’s Destiny (1976) and Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields (1977). Inspired by the rise of the National Front in the early 1970s, “Destiny” begins with the granting of India’s independence in 1947 and the expectation of an influx of Indians into Britain. Then the action comes forward to 1968 as we watch the preparations for the Taddley by-election, fought by the three parties, Labour, Conservative and “Nation Forward”. This new party, just getting off the ground, is apparently an attempt to offer an alternative to the usual pendulum of Labour and Conservative; as such they make glib comments like “under capitalism, man is exploited by man. Under communism, it’s precisely the other way round.” But Nation Forward is not a centre party. It is a highly extreme right party. The introduction of Nation Forward in the play takes place, Edgar is careful to note, on 20th April 1968. The significance of this is lost on us until we realise that the party members are celebrating Hitler’s birthday. They all swear allegiance in German to Hitler’s portrait on the wall: “Ich gelobe Dir und den von Dir bestimmten Vorgesetzten gehorsam bis in den Tod, so wahr mir Gott helfe” – which translates as “I vow to you, and to the superiors appointed by you, obedience to death, so help me God”.

Later, at a Nation Forward rally, the party’s supporters sing “Land of Hope and Glory” whilst hecklers chant “Nation Forward, Nazi Party”. The play helps us to understand how a pseudo-Nazi party can gain quick support, by trading on people’s fear and ignorance and by creating an atmosphere of paranoia where anybody of a different race, religion or colour from one’s own is automatically regarded as the enemy because of that fact. Also, because of the fear of going against the grain, constructive criticisms are overlooked, swept aside, or simply not made. Turner, Nation Forward’s candidate at the election, wants to argue their campaign organiser, Richard Cleaver, out of the party’s anti-Semitic stance, but he backs down through fear. I’m not going to make any comparisons with real political parties of today, but, personally, I find it both fascinating and scary in its potential accuracy.

Nation Forward was obviously conceived as a reaction to an overwhelming immigration problem, hence its slogan “Stand Up For Your Race, Stand Up For The Future”. But Mrs Howard, loyal Conservative Party member for forty years, has decided to leave the party because they have become: “infiltrated. From the left. The cryptos. Pale-pinks” to join Nation Forward, is also worried about “the people on fixed incomes. With inflation. No big union protecting them. What about the people without a union. What about us?” Inflation is certainly a major problem. Mr Attwood is concerned about unemployment: “with the business like it is… if it’s a British firm it’s going bankrupt, and if it’s American, some great Detroit tycoon picks up his phone and says, more profit if we shift the lot to Düsseldorf… what jobs there are, we’re not going to get”. Nation Forward say they care about these problems and lull the electorate into a false sense of security. On the question of race, moreover, Sandy Clifton, the wife of the Labour candidate, talks of a “widow I visit. Only white face in the street. No English shops any more. Can’t buy an English newspaper. The butcher’s gone. The kids smash up her windows. Yes, of course, you’ll say all kids do that, but when the street was white it didn’t happen… so I call her “racist”?” That doesn’t sound like an ideal environment in which to live, and it’s easy to see how a nation can lurch to the extreme right.

When Turner refers to the Community Relations Council at the second Nation Forward meeting, he regards it as “very nearly just a black power front… most of these groups are immigrant groups or left-wing groups like the Family Planning Association and Shelter. Not much chance of any of these being in the slightest anti-coloured or pro-British”. The dated and dubious phrase “anti-coloured” is seen as virtually synonymous with “pro-British”; and this ugly character is prepared, as a prospective Member of Parliament, to condemn the positive efforts of the Family Planning Association and Shelter. In the end, the Conservatives win the election and Nation Forward come third, although they received 6,993 votes, which is 23.8% of the vote, showing a dangerously high number of supporters for such extreme politics.

DestinyTo put the opposing view, Edgar creates the character Khera. We first see him as an eighteen-years-old servant in India, under the command of Colonel Chandler, Major Rolfe and (as he was then) Sergeant Turner (yes, the same horrible man). The Colonel encourages Khera to celebrate India’s independence with them, as an equal, and the scene ends with Khera relishing his new status, proudly and prophetically proclaiming “Civis Britannicus Sum” (I am a British Citizen). Sure enough, Khera came to Britain in 1958 in search of the protection promised by the mother country. Act One of the play ends with Khera working for Platt, the works manager at the local foundry, and the Conservative constituency chairman, but still receiving exactly the same contempt – even the same words – that he did in India in 1947.

Khera is a Labour voter, and therefore asks Labour candidate Clifton to support the strike he has organised to protest against “promotional discrimination”. This support may well be one of the reasons why the Conservatives eventually won the seat. But Khera’s political and union activity is due to his constant subjugation, and in the scuffle that follows the election result, Khera is attacked by Tony and Attwood, both of Nation Forward. Khera surprises them with his flick-knife and the last image we have of him in the play shows him finally wielding the power.

Khera’s ascent is paralleled by Turner’s downfall. Turner is comfortable in India, with some power, despite having more people above him than beneath him. By 1970 he has built up a relatively successful antique business and he is pleased that a new Conservative government has just been elected: “at last, the little man will get his chance against the big battalions”. Ironic, because his new neighbour Razak appears and explains that his landlord has been bought out by the Metropolitan Investment Trust and that Turner’s “particular retailing zone is pencilled in as a Zen macrobiotic luncheon take-away”. The developers have chosen to force Turner’s rent up so ridiculously high that he cannot afford to stay. The whole episode, because of its immediate relevance to himself, instils in him a hatred of developers – what Maxwell refers to as “speculative profiteering” – and kindles his racial prejudices as he believes Razak, a Pakistani who has (Turner thinks) the gall to carry a Union Jack carrier bag, is in charge of the development. That’s what motivates him to play an active role in Nation Forward. It is not until the end of the play that Turner discovers that ex-Major Rolfe, expressing his support for Nation Forward, has been in charge of the Metropolitan Investment Trust all along, and with this knowledge Turner’s political motivation crumbles.

What relevance does this have to a discussion about theatre censorship, I hear you ask? I merely offer it as an example of an insightful and constructive play that could not possibly have been staged under a censor’s regime.

Nation Forward and the National Front are clearly the same in all but name; even the initials are the same. Destiny is a fantasy; there is, in real life, no “Nation Forward”, no Taddley, and Adolf Hitler could not suddenly turn up in real life to close the play. “Destiny” is primarily a work of the imagination. In my next post I’m going to discuss Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields, which feels one stage closer to reality.

Review – If Only, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 20th July 2013

If OnlyOnce again it’s time for Mrs Chrisparkle and I to go on our annual pilgrimage to Chichester. Time was, when we lived in a little hamlet in north Bucks, that we thought Chichester was the centre of the universe; so much life there, so cosmopolitan. So many shops, restaurants, pubs and, of course, its amazing theatre. Now, we live in the thumping heart of the lively metropolis that is Northampton, we realise that Chichester isn’t all that lively really. It’s a sleepy little place where it’s very hard to get a drink after midnight, and trying to get a meal much past ten at night is a challenge too.

Nevertheless, we still enjoy our visits for the local charm and summer picnics, and the theatre. Because it’s almost a three-hour trip we tend to get tickets to a matinee and an evening show and stay overnight – make a weekend of it. And this year, for our matinee choice, I chose David Edgar’s new political work, If Only. When I was a teenager I was really impressed by his big work for the National Theatre, “Destiny”. It seemed all-encompassing, as it looked back from current day 1976 to partition in India in 1947. Later, of course, he would be responsible for that wonderful two-part adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, which condensed 900 pages of prose into 8 hours of thrilling stage drama. I’ve not seen anything else by David Edgar, so I was very keen to see how he would tackle a political drama about the coalition.

Eve PonsonbyIt’s an interesting premise. The first act shows our three political animals, one Labour, one Lib Dem and one Tory, stuck at Malaga Airport in 2010 whilst all the flights are cancelled due to the Icelandic Volcano. The general election is in a few weeks and these are important times for campaigners, MPs and wannabe MPs. Basically, the three of them need to get home as soon as possible, but every option seems to turn to dust. Eventually they buy an old banger, which gets them – neither quickly nor easily – back to the UK via Rotterdam; but in the getting there they hold all manner of discussions about the possible outcomes to the election and how they might best be dealt with. Add to this a young student who hitches a lift and throws many a spanner into their communal works, and it’s a real hotch-potch of political ideas, fears and plans.

After the interval we are propelled into a future world – summer 2014. Not long till the general election, UKIP are riding high in the polls, Christine Hamilton is an MP, our Lib Demmer is an MP with more influence than she could have imagined she would have, and our Tory MP is clinging on to the wreckage with concerns for the future. He’s on a mission to change what he fears will be the result of the next election but he needs the help of the others to achieve it; and the success or otherwise of that venture is where the rest of the play suspends.

Jamie GloverThere’s a lot of good in this play. It certainly gets you thinking about political scheming, and warns against extremism in a very clever and entertaining way. The set is really engaging, with an anxiously pixelating video wall that identifies the time and location of each scene, and which at one stage opens up to reveal a garage and real live Peugeot 205. The set changes completely for the second act, when it simply and effectively recreates a French battlefield chapel. There are some excellent witty observations in the text – I loved the reference to think tanks with a one word Latinate name, and also the fact that the Lib Dem has given up vegetarianism in the second act, which leaves an obvious deduction to be made about principles, just hanging in the air. There’s also the very interesting concept of the eighteenth camel, which gets used to great effect – Google it if you don’t know.

Martin HutsonDespite all this though, I don’t really think it’s quite the sum of its parts. Whilst the play is thought provoking it’s also very wordy, and you frequently get the feeling – well I did anyway – that there are aspects of the plot that you haven’t quite understood and regrettably there is no time to catch up. I was also a little disappointed that the three main characters were so stereotypically predictable. The Tory is a toff, the Labour guy is an “angry young man”, and the Lib Dem lady is a well meaning balanced right-on person in the middle of the spectrum. It’s a pity he couldn’t have swapped them around somehow; that could have been very entertaining. The two male characters were a bit shouty – one of Mrs C’s pet hates – and it all seemed to take place at the same pace – which was rather relentless, in fact. This made it feel that it didn’t have a lot of light and shade. There was also a sense of an unbalanced structure; the first act was full of short scenes in different locations, which lent an atmosphere of variety, but the second act was just one scene in one location, which got a bit – dare I say it – boring.

Charlotte LucasThe performances are all very good, although I particularly liked Eve Ponsonby as Hannah, the student, who is awkward and funny in the first act, and returns alarmingly more mature – or at least different – in the second. Whenever she’s on stage, her presence shakes up the other characters and creates more drama and tension. Without her, it’s a little like watching three TV talking heads at times, with a lot of verbiage to take in but not a lot to stimulate the other senses. Jamie Glover plays Peter Greatorex, the Tory, with a nicely played line in automatic arrogance and short temper; and his concern at how he perceives the 2015 election will go is very credible. Martin Hutson makes a good irascible Labour researcher with an indefatigable desire to get the last word in every argument and perpetually prove points. Charlotte Lucas’ Lib Dem Jo Lambert is in many ways the most interesting character as you see the effect that a little sudden power has on her, and she plays it very well. We enjoyed it – to be honest I think Mrs C enjoyed it slightly more than me, as she was more stimulated by the political arguments and concepts. But on balance, I was expecting something slightly more insightful and dramatic.

PS. Sorry to have to say this, but I think the bar at the Minerva is one of the most inept anywhere. When we visited last year, we caused the staff huge inconvenience by requesting a glass of wine. Apparently it was unheard of. This year, they took our interval order, but when we came out at half time they hadn’t prepared them, so we had to chase around from bar to bar trying to find someone to attend to us. Odd, considering that in the Festival theatre they are supremely professional at the beverage catering.