Reviewed: The Book of Mormon

Not so salty.

The Book of Mormon
Prince of Wales, London W1

To say word of mouth, or word of Twitter, ensured The Book of Mormon’s critic-proof transition from Broadway to London does not acknowledge Britain’s willingness to be seduced. The day the first, mixed, reviews came out, £2m-worth more tickets were sold to theatregoers who have never once been bothered by a Mormon on their doorstep. London remains in awe of US pop culture, and when we find an example that is anti- God, politically incorrect and wildly popular among Americans, hope floods into hearts unmoved by Obama’s re-election. It’s like 9/11 all over again: we are all Americans now.

As my attempted joke demonstrates, bad taste is easy, being funny hard and I am simply not sure how funny this musical, although effectively, if frugally, staged, boisterously acted and slickly choreographed, actually is. It is certainly bad taste.

A parody of The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata” makes comedy out of Aids and female genital mutilation. Its catchy title/ chorus “Hasa Diga Eebowai” turns out to translate as “Fuck You God (Up the Bum)”, which is where the Book of Mormon ends up lodged in a preacher. One of the best numbers, “Switch it Off”, a song about blacking out inconvenient feelings, includes as an example a sister dying of cancer.

For a colonist nation, the racist, dareto- be-offended jokes against Africa require a particularly stiff upper lip. The Uganda to which our two missionary heroes, Elder Price (Gavin Creel), a clean-cut true-believer, and Elder Cunningham (the excellent Jared Gertner), a curly-haired nerd there to find a buddy, are sent is peopled by gullible idiots in thrall to a homicidal warlord, General Butt Fucking Naked.

The African love interest (Alexia Khadime) is described as being “such a hot shade of black she is like a latte” and her conversion to Mormonism is explicitly compared to a sexual conquest. At the end, the black Africans who have bought Cunningham’s improvised brand of sci-fi Mormonism – just as Utah did, we infer, Joseph Smith’s original version – tell the elders that they knew all along religion was but a useful metaphor. The effect is condescending.

It is clear at this point that someone has lost their nerve. The musical’s get-out-of-jail card, its raucous blasphemy, has been traded in for a feel-good moment. But the sentimentality might even be welcome if hilarity had built through the evening. But the songs, faint parodies of not particularly memorable show tunes (“Tomorrow” from Annie is becomes “Tomorrow is a Latter Day”), go on too long. The dancing fails to get past the insight that musicals are a bit gay and the big set pieces, such as Elder Price’s malarial decent into hell, underwhelm.

I should have been on the floor laughing or about to walk out; instead throughout I smiled indulgently, an atheist trying not to feel guilty at watching a soft target, so placid it has taken ads in the programme, being bullied. Life of Brian, Jerry Springer, the Opera and that off-colour masterpiece The Producers, in contrast, induced something ecstatic and freeing. At curtain call the writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose creations South Park and Team America I admire, took a modest bow. They looked a little shamefaced, as if a pleasing bog-wall graffito had somehow ended up in the Tate.

The touring cast of The Book of Mormon.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era