Theatre review: Decade

This 9/11 drama neglects the non-western perspective.

In the States 911 is, of course, the number you dial in an emergency. Ironies like this one bubble and cluster in Decade, the theatrical response to the 9/11 anniversary: the "Never Forget" souvenir pins that are "end of line"; the prickly British Muslim who explains "Islam means peace: what the fuck you looking at?"

Decade is the product of 20 or so writers from widely different backgrounds, including Abi Morgan (of The Hour), Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage and everyone's favourite history don, Simon Schama. Under the steerage of Rupert Goold of Headlong Theatre, the show is a sequence of playlets that unravels in a mock-up of the Windows on The World Restaurant (107th Floor, North Tower), complete with sunny views of Manhattan.

We enter the restaurant-space (which is actually in London's St Katharine's Dock) after a passable imitation of real-life Homeland Security airport checks. The commercial location is more than a little antiseptic in nature, and the actors are forced to work hard for cohesion. Action takes place around (and on) the tables on the restaurant floor, but also behind the glass of a mezzanine level, which chillingly serves as airport walkway, hospital corridor and, of course, prime office space. At one point the performers, in their unexceptional business suits, are trapped, panicking, behind these upper windows. We know that, like Snow White in her glass coffin, they are as good as dead.

Such emotive moments, however, are metered out carefully. Adam Cork's beefy soundtrack similarly resists opening up the throttle of affect and effect. Decade refuses a master-narrative, and instead we are given episodes, or epiphanies, on a whole range of incidental characters and situations, ranging geographically from Guantanamo to Karachi, from waitresses to rhetoricians (both Bush and Bin Laden's speeches are reproduced).

We're shown the office-worker, half in love with the WTC "altar", and still dealing with the shock of watching his office turn to dust like a "sandcastle". The delicately faultless Tobias Menzies manages to look as though he might just crack up like the towers himself. There are the widows' annual commemorative get-togethers, including Charlotte Randle's marvellously brittle Brooklyn termagant who's a fan of Sarah Palin ("she's an idiot but, man, can she wear red"). The widows' scenes are interwoven throughout the night and move backwards through time, to, as it were, the prelapsarian state.

And there are the chancers, the fakers, and the whole industry surrounding the Ground Zero site, part hallowed ground, part real estate. One of the most engaging cameos is the Panamanian who works at the gift shop. He wasn't allowed to be a tour guide, like others with a more legitimate personal involvement, as at the time of the attacks he'd been playing Runescape, "then jerking off". He sleeps with some of his vulnerable customers, but they in turn never come back. He's taken to slipping the "Never Forget" pins in their pockets.

Many of the characters struggle with the collision of the personal with the symbolic, and of memory with history. "I don't want to know what I stand for," says one. Another complains bitterly that 11 September "was my birthday before it became this global tragedy".

The scenes are connected with dance sequences, not all of which comfortably emanate from the moment, but which at their best are stupendous. As Bush makes his "either you are with us or against us" speech, the American people seem literally to mobilise, armed with their cell phones and their newspapers. The flight attendants' safety instruction routine is codified, to a magisterial Rossini soundtrack, into an increasingly frantic and desperate ballet.

Visual leitmotifs also serve to connect the fragments: the characters sport a layer of dust on their shoulders - a sort of deadly dandruff - one woman's eczema makes her flake before our eyes; there is even dust in the Yemeni shopkeeper's milk carton. Rupert Goold shows us fear in a handful of dust.

The material varies considerably, with the verbatim quilted in alongside the scripted. There's even a mini-lecture on Thomas Jefferson and Miltonic ideals, courtesy of the don. Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe's fingerprints were surely all over the searing fugue made up of 9/11 text messages. But elsewhere the red pen could have, should have, been used to axe scenes. The babel of voices may feel appropriate, but too many writers, I suspect, have been indulged in the process. And Decade, though a circumspect, deeply imaginative response, is an entirely occidental one.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism