Playing With Fire reviewed

Playing With Fire is a play by David Edgar, best known for Destiny, a play about the National Front which was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1976 and was screened by the BBC in 1978; since then, his works have include an adaptation of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby for Channel 4 and a number of other plays. Playing With Fire is a return to the same theme as Destiny, namely, the British far right, in this case set in a fictional northern English town and inspired by the riots of 2001. Edgar has an article about Destiny and Playing With Fire in the Guardian here (a similar article appears at the back of the book containing the play’s script). (Tags: , ; Links: [1], [2].)

The plot of PWF is that a New Labour apparatchik called Alex Clifton (played by Emma Fielding), with two decades of service in Labour and various fringe groups in London, is sent to “sort out” a failing Yorkshire borough council, “Wyverdale”. Wyverdale is a failure in just about every respect, and on arrival she finds an inner circle containing one Manning-esque reactionary old Yorkshireman and several other inadequates, an illiterate mayor, a sex trade mostly concentrated in a Muslim-dominated area of town, and a local public sector which has become the area’s biggest employer since the closure of the mills. Not suprisingly, people are resistant to any change.

But the government insists, and when threatened with imposition of a referendum on an elected mayor, the council reluctantly agree to a number of “diversity” schemes such as a multi-cultural town fayre. They also agree to an investment of European money in the impoverished Muslim district - to the exclusion of an equally impoverished white-dominated area. The referendum goes ahead anyway, however, and the ensuing politicking among the “old guard” fails to produce a viable candidate, leaving the way open for the far-right “Brittania” party’s man to get in. The first act concludes with an annual Holocaust memorial at the town’s cenotaph, which is disrupted by a Brittania activist who attempts to make a speech about the “white holocaust” in Zimbabwe and to lay a wreath for a local white youth killed by supposed Islamic fundamentalists; the event degenerates into a brawl.

The second act opens a few years later with a public inquiry into things which happened a few years after the events at the end of the first act: a riot. A succession of witnesses, including a hotel waiter, one police officer and an elderly Pakistani “community leader”, with the mother of the murder victim being invited to give a statement. A number of contributing factors are brought to light, including the fact that the local Pakistanis had faced years of racist abuse, such as violence against minicab drivers who sometimes faced police action themselves after complaining.

The reviews have been rather mixed, with the Guardian saying it posited a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation:

If Labour failed to make provision for ethnic minorites, it would be accused of insensitivity; if it does so, it is accused of fanning white racism.

But really, that’s how it is; in this case, it did appear that money was directed into Asian areas and not to equally impoverished white areas. In the case of the riot in this play, however, other factors have brought it on, and in any case, the race-baiters would use any excuse and exaggerate the situation. And the money that was spent on the Asian areas was spent to sort out the detested drugs and prostitution problems, as the elderly community leader Yusuf Iqbal is shown explaining to the inquiry:

You know, Lord Stanley, that despite all the talk of self-segregation and apartheid and parallel communities, there is a place in Wyverdale where young Asian and young white men work together across ethnic divisions in circumstances of mutual respect and harmony … The drugs trade. Suppliers, clients, all in perfect harmony together. And it is of course the druggies and the drifters who come back to Islam, switch on their computers, find the websites, and talk of holy war.

And it’s significant that there have been two recent cases of converts from criminal backgrounds getting involved in terrorism. In the aftermath of the riot, a Muslim youth named Fazal who angrily shouts from the sidelines during the inquiry is shown towards the end in his former appearance: as a clean-shaven youth in a three-piece fusion band. He “got religion” after seeing how Asian men were treated for “defending their community”, prosecuted for the riot and, as admitted by Yusuf Iqbal, betrayed by the community’s elders.

On the other hand, Toby Young in the Spectator said that there is much that any Tory would approve of in this play. I’m not entirely sure that the message here is pro-Tory or in favour of particular types of forced integration; it wasn’t just that the Asian community were over-accommodated. The council was shown as corrupt, the police prejudiced, the reforms and new projects done incompetently, and while whites may have resented seeing money spent on Asians and not on them, it was not actually requested by the Asians. As Fazal said in one of the inquiry scenes, the Asian area “ain’t no begging bowl”. The problem of misguided and sometimes unrequested “accommodations” to Muslims is a real one; it contributes to negative media coverage (similar to the loony-left stories in the British tabloid press in the 1980s) and to anti-dhimmi propaganda. No Muslim asked or should ask, for example, that non-Muslims tone down their religious displays to suit us. (For the most recent example of this, see this report.)

Another scene which would be familiar to Muslim viewers is during the inquiry sequence, in which Fazal is placed in the awkward position of being asked to shake the hand of a woman, in public. This rather takes the wind out of Fazal’s angry demonstration. No doubt his position is made worse by community leaders who have not refused a woman’s hand in the past, but Fazal is doing things properly but without much preparation. This happened after the murder victim’s mother, who had become a “tool” of the far-right group, unexpectedly changed sides during the inquiry. It is eventually she who works out that “it’s nowt personal. He won’t touch women on account of his religion”, resolving the situation for Fazal.

The play is very much a topical one, and contains a lot of humour about New Labour politics. You’ve got Civitatis (obviously similar to a real group) and an expensive consultant from an outfit called Habitus which, as Alex pointed out, is “indeed extortionately expensive”, as recent governments have had a tendency to be fond of expensive consultations; she also turns out to be full of alliterative schemes (the four E’s, the four C’s, that sort of thing) and was the first to suggest the idea of diversity events which were to cause such trouble. (In our student union in the mid-90s, we paid money to a consultancy composed of former union staff members, whose recommendation was that we cut the number of paid elected officers from eight to five - an impossibility, since one of these would have had to be reserved for the Welsh speakers’ organisation.) The “white holocaust” reference in the last scene of Act One is probably not a reference to the embarrassingly inappropriate objections to the Holocaust Memorial Day we have recently heard, but it’s a happy coincidence (it could have been written in at the last minute, but then it probably would not have turned up in the published script).

All in all I enjoyed the play, and I think it makes a useful contribution to the debate about race relations and segregation in this country. Whatever Edgar’s personal views about integration and community politics, the play ultimately makes the point that intervention has to be done even-handedly and sensitively, rather than (to use one of the play’s many east European metaphors) as things were done in Kosovo: with the best of intentions but from a great height, hitting lots of things you didn’t mean to hit. Anyone with an interest in the subject is recommended to see this.

The play runs until 22nd October, and seats at the sides and balcony can be bought for £10. The National Theatre is on the South Bank; nearest tube: Waterloo.

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