There's life beyond the Oliviers

It's time theatre awards recognised the provinces.

On Sunday, the winners of the Oliviers, "British theatre's most sought after awards" were announced. In an effort to Oscar-cise and Tony-vate the event, organisers even brought on the big show-guns like Angela Lansbury and, er, Barry Manilow. But if the desired glitz was a little undermined by the line-up, it was sunk entirely by the clownish BBC coverage. An over-heated Jodie Prenger ran divertingly amok on the red carpet, but far worse was inflicted on us by the editing: we were denied Nancy Carroll's acceptance speech (for best actress in After the Dance) in favour of an interview with Gok Wan, who hadn't seen any of the shows, but who knows a thing or two about man-scarves.

Responsible for the Larrys and their US-style showbiz revamp is The Society of London Theatre (Solt). Despite the rhetoric, and public perception, "Britain's" most prestigious awards are nothing of the kind: they are London's awards. And covering less than half of London venues at that: Solt members and affiliates only. The small-scale and non-building based - everything outside "Theatreland" - is all but ignored.

The judges are "industry professionals" appointed by Solt, and members of the public, who are vetted by Solt. It puts me in mind of Jean Luc Godard's rebuke to Truffaut: "You say films are trains that pass in the night, but who takes the train, in which class, and who is driving it with a management snitch at his side?" In this case, it is broadly clear who is driving the train, and pouring themselves a big congratulatory glass of Bolly at the same time - though specifics of the professional judges' interest and connection with the shows, if any, are far from transparent.

As far as the Oliviers are concerned, the provinces don't exist. Which is ironic, considering the cogent plea for spending cuts clemency in the regions made by luminaries like Helen Mirren, Mike Leigh and Kenneth Brannagh in the Observer this weekend (part of actors' union Equity's wider campaign). The RSC's smash-hit musical Matilda will only be eligible for nomination if and when it transfers to the West End.

London is pretty well loved-up between the Oliviers and the Off-West End awards (or "Offies"), though there is a confusing intersection: Blasted at the Lyric Hammersmith won both an Olivier and an Offie. There are a further three lots of capital-centric accolades I can think of. But apart from the odd bone, in the regions it's still a case of here be dragons.

But the West End is neither synonymous with, nor the "best of," British theatre. Lee Ross was nominated for best supporting actor in Birdsong, and whilst he deserved gongs aplenty, as far as I'm concerned, for supporting the entire rickety play, I infinitely preferred his performance in Marine Parade at the Brighton Festival. It's as if a theatrical experience here is somehow lesser than one on Shaftesbury Avenue; the desired trajectory for an actor or a play is a Dick Whittington one: to move from "the provinces" to the capital. Even the rallying call for funding in the regions cites their role as a training ground for greater, metropolitan things, rather than a legitimate end in itself.

Solt, and its awards to itself, do at least straddle the subsidised and commercial sectors: the Royal Court and the National were big winners on Sunday. Without subsidy Theatreland would be even more risk averse (there'd be no Clybourne Park), and we'd end up with the merry-go-round of musicals that is Broadway. And thankfully there is still room for the odd David to rise through the ranks and slap the Goliaths: Best New Opera went to OperaUpClose's production of La Bohème, which started life at the 35-seat Cock Tavern before transferring to the Soho Theatre. Personally gratifying, also, to see the fragrant Sheridan Smith and Legally Blonde snatch trophies from the Phantom sequel "The Franchise Never Dies".

But, based on an eclectic consumption of theatre around the country this year, I'm not sure I could decide on the relative value of a performance given in a shed in Bath, say, over the rococo excesses of Drury Lane. Some of the most startling shows I have seen have been many, many miles from London. Perhaps we should inaugurate a truly national award, equal to the Oliviers in prestige, that celebrates our regional centres and our caravanserais of nomadic performers: the Noliviers? And the nominations are...?

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism