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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times