A bold and exhausting Sheridan

Deborah Warner's production at the Barbican is an all-embracing mix of Brecht and punk.

Gadzooks but this story of gossip and gagging orders sounds familiar! Sheridan's The School for Scandal (1777) about bitching, subterfuge and the control of information among the beautiful people ("people will talk, there's no preventing it") is bang on the money.

Deborah Warner's production at the Barbican starts with some pumping electronic beats. The cast convenes on an informal catwalk in a Vivienne Westwood motley of 18th-century meets punk, which we might perhaps loosely call Barock. They hold Brechtian placards with character types scrawled on them ("libertine", "smooth-tongued hypocrite", "country coquette") and use their mobile phones to snap each other gurning with the audience in the background. The mood of narcissistic self-validation, Facebook-stylie is set.

Duly alienated, we watch the actors in their jocks and crinolines begin to don their hybrid costumes. We watch the action unfold on Jeremy Herbert's stage, where fakeries of all kinds are exposed: flats and backdrops are flimsy, and pasted with decoupage, or wallpaper with "blue wallpaper" written on the bottom.

The exposure of artifice does create a few challenges for the performers, who are adrift on a prairie of a stage. One must hike across the hinterland in order to grab the flowers and throw them down in a fit of pique. It's an Andean trek upstage to get to the screen and overturn it... you get the picture. The design is so intent on baring all that the exquisite claustrophobia of the Sheridan salon is all but lost. The very grammar of the doings of the idle rich depends upon being crated up like cattle together, immured in each other's drawing rooms, and climbing those walls with boredom. Here, surely, is where backbiting and snooping thrive.

Each scene change is a marvel of banners, projections, announcements -- even fireworks. There is plenty of highly affective loud music, like "Jai Ho", which was the Slumdog Millionaire theme, and "Chihuahua", which was not. But it's like a many-course meal where the appetisers and the rince-bouches totally overpower the main dishes and wreck the palate; subtler flavours are lost to us. It's a tough entr'acte to follow.

The electronic, digital overload makes the human voice seem comparatively frail, and the actors respond in curious ways to the stage that upstages, and the hi-energy, hi-concept interludes. Under pressure to large it up, at times their brief seems to have been to simply go crazy, and the result is some very strange shtick indeed. I will hurriedly gloss over the be-skirted bloke lurching around in the debauchery scenes, and the unfortunate cameo of Moses, pigeon-toed and pigeonholed as The Honest Jew. Charles, the good-hearted libertine, is played as a frazzled, addled addict: clearly an ill-matched Pete Doherty to the Waity Katy, composed heiress that is his beloved.

Some performers find a more comfortable accommodation with the Sheridan syntax: Alan Howard, as the elderly husband coping with the sex-and-shopping excesses of his younger wife and her "country ways" (all puns in Sheridan intended), transmits the mournful sing-song of a 1940s wireless broadcaster. As his blood rises, so does his pitch: it's the same cut-glass broadcaster, but commentating on a thrilling sporting event.

Warner's cheerfully anachronistic, mock-Georgian characters are a louche lot, who watch porn, snort coke and binge drink. Textual innuendo is fully outed, so thoughts of infidelity translate to actual heavy petting on the furniture. It's a show with plenty of grunt and real swagger, even if this is patchily achieved. We may be thankful for Warner's interpretative boldness, but when the final banner unfurls after three and a quarter hours, and reveals the words "it's finished, thank God," we can but say a quiet Amen to that.

ED THOMPSON / LUZ / EYEVINE
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"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage