Drunk Irishmen. Lazy Latinos. Neighbourhood Muslim Jihadists. These and other stereotypes are on display in Richard Bean’s new play, England People Very Nice. It’s been billed as a comedy, but many find the work to be racist, offensive and a work that reenforces stereotypes of, among others, many immigrant groups inside the UK. Playwright Hussain Ismail writes on The Guardian’s Arts blog:
Racism often hides behind humour. Growing up in east London during the 1970s, I never found it funny. But attitudes have changed, and multicultural Britain couldn’t be better represented than it is in the borough of Tower Hamlets in 2009.
I’ve worked as a playwright here for five years, founding Soulfire theatre company to develop talent in my local community, helping new writers, directors and actors become part of the wider theatre ecology. So, it was with genuine interest that I went to the National Theatre last week to see Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice – a play set in Bethnal Green, and purporting to represent my neighbourhood and its mix of people….
The play is meretricious, and tries to mask prejudice behind crass humour and cheap laughs. It’s not even very clever. The Irish and Bangladeshis particularly get it in the neck – in Bean’s version of the East End, the Irish are all incestuous, wife-beating, alcoholics while the Bangladeshi Muslim youth are either muggers, drug dealers or Jihadis.
But where was my sense of humour? Was I being overly critical or ultra-sensitive? I don’t think so. Even the Evening Standard’s Nicholas de Jongh, hardly a bastion of liberalism, believes there must be a way to talk about such an important subject without reducing it to “a cruel cartoon“. On the first night, all I saw was a sea of people laughing at immigrants – without any discernible irony.
The charge was starkly made by playwright Hussain Ismail last week. It’s great that his blog attracted such intense discussion, but it’s a shame that much of the debate had little to do with the play itself; many of those shouting the loudest hadn’t even seen it.
At the end of the day there seems to be two responses developing to this kind of art – one which feels offended and hurt by the portrayal of racist stereotypes and one which argues for the exposure of such stereotypes in order to laugh at how ridiculous they are. When do funny stereotypes become racist and who decides which is which?