Actors over athletes

Beneath the Cultural Olympiad, the Criterion theatre will show the funny side of the Olympics in two new plays.

The build-up to the sport explosion that looms over London is heightening, but the Olympics bring more than just inspiration to exercise in logo-coated vests. Since 2008 London has borne witness to the “Cultural Olympiad”, which triangulates various expressions of culture in the form of theatre productions, festivals and workshops. The Olympiad boasts more than 8 300 past workshops with a total attendance of 169 000 people, and over 16 million people have seen an offical London 2012 cultural performance. But, slightly outside the official team's monopoly on cultural events, London holds a number of theatrical sparks beneath the Olympic radar.

Coinciding with the Olympic dates, the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus will be holding a programme titled Playing the Games. The series of events is technically part of the Olympiad in the London 2012 Festival, but being London's only independent West End theatre and with a humble capacity of 588, it falls slightly under the array of official events. Playing the Games holds an opportunity to see both up-and-coming and well-established talents in the form of comedians, musicians, playwrights and Olympians. With the aim to bring together sport and culture, encompassing the attempts of the London 2012 Olympics itself, the programme holds two new Olympic-related plays. Taking Part by Adam Brace strings together all the relevant spirits of self-belief and opportunism, and not excluding the timely Olympic tradition of things going wrong. The story follows a Congolese security guard training as an Olympic swimmer to compete in the London Games. His Russian coach doesn't have much hope for him, but unlike the audience watching real underdogs competing in the real Games, the audience will support his determination and optimism to the end. Alternatively, for the less sporty types, the Criterion will also be showing Serge Cartwright's After the Party. This follows Sean and Ray, two 30-ish-year-old former DJs trying to shove their feet back in the heavy doors of the music industry. With the world flocking around their Statford homes for London 2012 they have their last chance at a musical career, and the audience has yet another opportunity for Olympic merriment.

If your cultural aim this summer is to avoid the Olympic theme altogether, Playing the Games will also hold performances aimed at the less athletic audience, or at those poor Londoners afflicted with Olympic-bitterness. The renowned and skilled arts group, Paper Cinema, will be showing for one day only a version of Homer's the Oddysey using hand-drawn paper puppets. In what the Times has called “ingeniously effective”, Paper Cinema will use their skilled puppet masters and riveting live musicians to bring cardboard cut-outs to life. For a more informal theatrical experience, the Criterion is also holding a number of lunchtime interviews by such comedy personalities as Stephen Fry and Alan Davies, and sporting inspirations as Edwin Moses and Haile Gebrselassie.

The Criterion will not be the only theatre to bring drama to the Olympics. At Headlong, Citizens Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre, a new opportunity to see the classic Euripides tragedy Medea will come to light. Mike Bartlett has audaciously written a modern version in association with the Warwick Arts Centre that makes the ancient drama even more horrifying in contemporary context. Or, on the lighter side, you could see a play about a man in labour. Birthday by Joe Penhall at the Royal Court Theatre tells a more comic story about a world with artificial wombs and truly equal partnership in childbirth. Arriving into the world kicking and screaming, Birthday will be showing throughout the summer and shows the wide variety of entertainment available to London in place of sweaty Olympic crowds.

Obi Abili plays an amateur Congolese Olympic swimmer in a new production at the Criterion theatre. Photograph: Bill Knight
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Why are we sometimes so reluctant to enjoy ourselves - even when we're allowed?

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is a profound meditation on the ways we deny ourselves pleasure.

In the sage words of the novelist William Maxwell, “It is impossible to say why people put so little value on complete happiness.” The psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips has, for some time, been engaged in investigating this enigma. A recent collection of essays, Missing Out, explored our propensity to attach a greater value to what we have not, rather than what we have. His latest book, Unforbidden Pleasures, is a profound meditation on our reluctance to enjoy ourselves as we might and, more crucially, as we are apparently granted the freedom to do.

A good deal of complex thinking and ­reference is compressed into two hundred or so pages. Phillips’s first witness is Oscar Wilde, whose provocatively intelligent statement on political engagement – “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings” – sets the book’s terms. “It is, of course, Wilde’s point that socialism interferes with sociability,” Phillips comments. Our ideologies – whether extraneous, as political or moral systems, or internalised – estrange us from our more creative and enjoyable instincts.

If Phillips sees in Wilde an ally, it is because the latter’s epicureanism made him suspicious of all enemies of pleasure, most especially self-inflicted punishment. A mistaken respect for a forbidding authority is, in Phillips’s view, the basis of conscience. He considers this problematic concept through the example of Hamlet, a character with whom Freud was also much preoccupied: “Tragedy is the cultural form in which we are trying to reveal something not about the real horror of life, but about the horror of life lived under the aegis of a certain kind of conscience.” Rather than seeking to actualise a limiting ideal that can never be realised (according to Phillips, this is the tragic norm), Hamlet is unusual in ­exploring, in his self-reproaches, alternative ways of being.

In Hamlet’s best-known soliloquy, “To be, or not to be” – a rumination with resonances as wide as the sea – we encounter the line: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” In the Second Quarto, this appears as: “Thus conscience does make cowards.” From this more open-ended version, Phillips launches a stellar exploration of the  politics of intimidation as the basis of our so-called morality.

To be moral by dint of intimidation is not to be moral at all but to be the hapless citizen of a totalitarian system. Much of our behaviour is at the behest of an inner censor, absorbed through our upbringing, whose influence is at best restrictive – a cruel clipper of wings – and at worst murderous. Guilt, Phillips wants to persuade us, is often the fearful reaction to this internalised tyrant’s disapproval, rather than a result of honest remorse. With the terrible phrase “to be ashamed of yourself”, it is worth asking, Phillips suggests, what made the self of whom one is enjoined to be ashamed.

But in Shakespeare’s day, “conscience” also meant “consciousness” – and consciousness can seem to make us cowards, not through intimidation but by exploring realms of thought that break the prevailing rules. Freud appears never to have questioned the call to revenge that Hamlet buckles under. He perceives Hamlet’s procrastination and ensuing self-criticism as no more than the displacement of violence towards his murdering uncle, never considering that Hamlet’s “conscience” may also be a disinclination to obey a dead father’s demand. If, as Hamlet suggests, “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” it may well be, as Phillips speculates, that he is attempting to hunt down and bag Claudius’s shabby morality in order to expose it on a public stage. But it may also be an attempt to engage Claudius in a more creative conversation through play (or, to be specific, a play – for Hamlet, as well as being an artist’s protégé, is an artist).

Phillips never quite spells this out but it seems the natural conclusion to his thinking. For the play that Hamlet puts on is surely an unforbidden pleasure, in striking contrast to the highly forbidden pleasure of murder. Wilde provocatively claimed that all art is immoral, but that is so only if “moral” means “doing the done thing”. It is part of Phillips’s point that the forbidden becomes enticing; in an environment of free choice, it may be naturally eschewed.

Phillips would probably demur at being described as a religious writer. Yet he is, I think, in the wider sense, because he explores seriously the great moral themes that play in the theatre of human consciousness. It is inevitable, therefore, that the Genesis myth is evoked. Why did God forbid His human creations to eat of the tree of know­ledge of good and evil? Surely, in His omniscience, He was aware that by forbidding it He was prompting the disobedience that led, in Milton’s epic words, to “all our woe”. But what if all God was doing was describing a consequence – if you do this, then that follows? Maybe the real sin of our “first parents” was in hearing a forbidden in what was only, after all, a health-and-safety warning: the foolhardy sin, as Phillips might see it, of choosing tragedy over contentment and play.

Phillips has said that what he most desires for his readers is that they be stimul­ated into new thoughts. With this supremely thought-provoking book, he roundly succeeds.

Salley Vickers is an author and former psychoanalyst. Her latest collection of short stories, “The Boy Who Could See Death”, is published by Viking

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is published by Hamish Hamilton (208pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war