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.

Theatre Censorship – 25: Changing Rooms and Sheer Unadulterated Filth

The Changing Room

The Changing Room, photographed by John Haynes

Julian Hilton, in his essay The Court and its Favours, published in Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 19, draws attention to David Storey’s fascination with what may be termed the off-centre: “he deliberately presents, as it were, the two outside panels of a triptych, but consciously removes the middle”. The three acts of his 1971 play The Changing Room are set in the changing room of a Rugby League club before, during and after the match. The match is the least of his concerns, and our interest is only marginal; we never discover the final score, and we the audience are happy to ignore it. Instead Storey wants us to observe the movements and behaviour of a group of closely united people whose actions are not restrained by any external influence.

On the pitch, the rugby players know they have to put on a show because they are being watched. The changing room, however, offers them a sanctuary away from the public gaze, free from the pressure elsewhere imposed on them. This dramatic reversal provides the play’s strength; as the rugby players are being observed in private, the play offers an outstanding atmosphere of comradeship and frankness, which is certainly enhanced by the use of nudity. Storey wants to show that the characters are all members of the same “team” in two ways. First, that they are the “City” side as opposed to their unnamed rivals; secondly, that they are, for a short time, a group of twenty-two segregated men who can talk freely yet privately about wives, girlfriends and other topics of all-male interest. Such a play in such a setting would not have been feasible without the use of nudity because it couldn’t depict the team members getting undressed and bathing, and the play would not ring true. In other later productions such as Equus (1973), Privates on Parade (1977), The Elephant Man (1977) and Bent (1979), the nudity offers a sense of honesty and genuineness; again, the impression would have been obviously false if nudity had been avoided in these cases. And not just male nudity – Nell Dunn’s Steaming (1981) features the women who take refuge and support from using their local baths, and their fight to keep them open in the face of financial cuts by the Council.

Stephen Poliakoff

Stephen Poliakoff

In discussing sexuality, topics became daring and challenging. Stephen Poliakoff’s Hitting Town (1975), for example, deals with the incestuous relationship between Clare and her irresponsible brother Ralph. One of his pranks – and certainly the most revealing about his character – is to ring the phone-in programme on the local radio station, pretending to be an eleven-year-old and saying he has had sexual intercourse with his sister, also aged eleven. However, as in so many of Poliakoff’s early plays, the author’s main objective is to create a little colour and excitement to cry out and get noticed against the greys and neons of his soulless Leicester walkways.

Lay By

Portable Theatre’s production of Lay By (1971) photo by Roger Perry

Poliakoff was also involved in the writing of possibly the most significant play of its time concerning rape, the infamous Lay-By, first presented by Portable Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival in 1971. Apparently, after a meeting at the Royal Court, David Hare announced, “Anyone who wants to write a play with me join me in the bar”. Thus Poliakoff, Hare, and five other accomplished playwrights – Howard Brenton, Brian Clark, Trevor Griffiths, Hugh Stoddart and Snoo Wilson – collaborated on this work. The play took as its inspiration a newspaper report discussing the apparent innocence of a van driver, Jack, who had been sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for rape, which, it was alleged, took place in the back of his van. In “Lay-By”, the facts of the rape are very blurred; the presence of Jack’s mistress in the van at the same time as the alleged rape adds to the complexity. The play shows the adverse effects of pornography and drugs, and culminates with two hospital orderlies abusing an unconscious girl who is about to die from the effects of a back-street abortion. Finally, her dead body, and those of Jack and his mistress, whose deaths remain unexplained, are washed in what appears to be blood.

The play is a strange mixture of dramatised documentary and fantasy, its unevenness being an inevitable consequence of its group composition. The different styles of Poliakoff and Brenton, for example, may be seen with regard to their artistic treatment of realism. They are at opposing ends of the spectrum: Poliakoff is deeply concerned with realistic presentation – the Wimpy Bar in “Lay-By” is definitely of his invention – whereas Brenton uses more imaginative and fantastic devices, such as the horses in Epsom Downs or the raising of Churchill in The Churchill Play. “Lay-By” had been commissioned by the Royal Court but they eventually refused to present it because it was too daring, and possibly liable to prosecution on the grounds of its possibly tending “to deprave and corrupt persons…likely…to attend it”. Nevertheless, the Royal Court finally accepted it for occasional Sunday performances, and I’m sure the irony of that wasn’t lost on the theatregoing public of the day.

Denis Quilley as Carmen Miranda

Denis Quilley as Carmen Miranda, with Joe Melia and Simon Jones, Copyright Orion Classics

The inclusion of homosexuality in plays was as frequent as it was before the new Act. Peter Nichols created gay characters for both tenderness and ridicule in Privates on Parade, as well as for the humour involved in Terri Dennis’ drag appearances as Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda. Earlier in 1967, Simon Gray’s Wise Child had featured female impersonation for much more sinister ends. The play was originally written for the BBC, but the producer to whom it was sent turned it down on the grounds that it would offend the general public. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Lord Chamberlain passed it, with a few cuts. Norman Krasna’s Lady Harry (1978) involved female impersonation and was a total box office failure, running for less than a week at the Savoy Theatre. In 1979 Martin Sherman’s Bent won critical accolades for its boldness and maturity, although its very fragmentary and extended structure detracts from the play as a whole, in my humble opinion. In December 1980 Brenton’s The Romans in Britain arrived at the National Theatre to great scandal and I’ll be looking at this episode in theatre history separately later.

Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill

In the 1970s you could find much cruder examples of religious irreverence than were around before 1968. Two notable examples are “God? Are You there? Bastard… Well fuck you, God the fucking father, and fuck you Jesus Creepers and fuck you, God the Holy Fucking Ghost” (Deeds by Brenton, Griffiths, Campbell and Hare, 1978) and “Shitting, pissing, spewing, puking, fucking Jesus Christ” (Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill, 1976). The latter example, in particular, appears solely to set out to shock, and although it is a fairly effective device, and certainly an alliterative curse, its very frankness detracts from its meaning and, in the final analysis, it’s just a bunch of words. At least when Samuel Beckett wrote “He doesn’t exist!” in Endgame he substantiated his claim.

It’s interesting to think what might have happened if these plays had been written ten years earlier. They would then have been open to prosecution under the old Blasphemy Act of 1697 which was not repealed under the 1967 Criminal Law Act. Paragraph 44 of the 1967 Committee’s report states that “violation of religious reverence is covered by the law of blasphemy” and cited this as a safeguard against offensive texts in its recommendation that censorship be withdrawn. However, in the same year the Criminal Law Act repealed the 1697 Act, and as a result, the “violation of religious reverence” is not held a crime under any circumstances. The old Act, which had been passed for general suppression of blasphemy and profanity, read:

“An offence is committed in:
(1) shockingly or irreverently ridiculing or impugning the doctrines of the Christian faith, or
(2) uttering or publishing contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ, or
(3) profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures or exposing any part thereof to contempt or ridicule.”

Caryl Churchill’s description of Christ mentioned above is clearly contumelious, and under the strict codes of law, the passage would have been illegal. One can only speculate whether this forgotten old law would have been brought into practice against such writing.

In my next blog post I’ll take a look at blasphemy in post-1968 theatre.