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High politics and low cunning on the London stage

Andrew Billen reviews a trio of new productions: Damned by Despair, This House and The River.

Damned by Despair; This House; The River
National Theatre, London SE1;
Royal Court, London SW1

Damned by Despair, a play by the Spanish bard Tirso de Molina, which opened in a new version by Frank McGuinness at the National’s Olivier last month, concerns a devout hermit fearful of going to hell. In Bijan Sheibani’s exceptionally tedious production, however, it is the audience who are damned. Against sets that are meant to recall El Greco but actually invoke the comic art of Look and Learn, wildly miscast actors limp through the motions of a text apparently no more profound than the jingle that runs through Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock: “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, mercy I asked, mercy I found.”

In hell, particularly, was Bertie Carvel, playing Enrico, the dastardly but glamorous bandit, with whom the hermit’s fate is somehow twinned. Carvel was about as dangerous and thuggish as a Strictly Come Dancing contestant, and he was not helped on the night I went by the chains in which he is held slipping miraculously at one point from his torso. Dangerously close to incompetent, this evening could turn a person off the theatre for years.

Not, however, if they got up early and queued outside the Royal Court for an unreserved seat at Jez Butterworth’s The River at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. After the success of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières said repeating the trick was like trying to get an erection at lunchtime in the middle of Trafalgar Square. Butterworth, whose 2009 play Jerusalem proved the most acclaimed theatrical experience of the last decade, must have felt similarly fearful of detumescence at the prospect of a follow-up.

Nor can it have been easy for Dominic West, the male lead in The River, who had to match Mark Rylance’s wonderful performance in the previous play. Neither need have feared. While Jerusalem was a baggy monster of an event with, in Rooster Byron, a baggy monster of a central character, The River is a near-perfect studio piece, short, precisely written (as Jerusalem, for all its mad genius, was not) and extraordinarily potent.

At its centre is West, playing the inhabitant of a remote cabin, a man as smooth and contained as Rooster was emotionally incontinent, but also fond of those long Butterworth monologues that look so forbidding on the page, but in a great actor’s hands become arias. In terms of his job and background, we know little about the Man, not even his name. He draws. He is a countryman who can not only catch a fish but cook it; a scion, one would suppose, of gentry. But soon a more fundamental mystery arises.

In his declarations of love to his female guests, is he genuine or is he a fraud, a romantic or a serial seducer? The Man uses nature as bait for his women, in particular late night fly-fishing for sea trout. He is, it seems, after the one that got away, a beloved he also tries to draw back to life on his sketch pad. But the metaphor extends: a glorious sea trout is a muddy-bellied river trout that has been transformed by the ocean. What kind of fish is the Man and what has experience turned him into?

Our question-marks over the Man beautifully refract an audience’s puzzlement over what genre this haunting, eerie, yet funny play belongs to. Is it a thriller? West, after all, last year played Fred West on television, a man who lured women to his den. Early in the play, a girlfriend goes missing and the Man panics. The replay of an earlier tragedy? Or is it, reverting to Jerusalem, a play about a clash between modern, urban and traditional, rural values? A girl, after all, is bawled out by the Man for catching a trout with a Monster Munch. Is it a love story? Or a story about stories, about forcing ourselves and others into predetermined narratives? Whatever it is, Butterworth, the director Ian Rickson, West, Miranda Raison and Laura Donnelly have created a classic. The real thing.

This House is real, too, or so it felt when I went. James Graham’s clever play about the Wilson-Callaghan governments of 1974-79, as told from the Tory and Labour whips’ offices, was being watched from the mock Commons benches by Shirley Williams, Nigel Lawson, David Dimbleby, Charles Clarke, and David Steel (who sat amused at Gunnar Cauthery’s replica of him). Watching from further above was Walter Harrison, the Labour deputy chief whip of the day, whose obituary I had just read. I hope he would have appreciated Philip Glenister’s rough-hewn impersonation. This was a portrait of politics at grunt level, a desperate fight in which principle, comradeship and decency were trampled on by bullies.

Some of the political storytelling looked a little inexact to me, as if the intricacies of the Lib-Lab pact and a referendum on devolution were too distant to be explained now. One assertion, which got an easy laugh, seemed plain wrong. The Tory whip Jack Weatherill says there are no “Tory Scots”, but the February 1974 election in fact left the Conservatives with 21 seats in Scotland. Yet the play’s sense of the era, as one of decay and decline, as emphasised in the historian Dominic Sandbrook’s accounts of the period, and of dinosaur machismo, as celebrated in Life on Mars, was brilliantly caught.

Actually, it was all about mortality. The Labour lobby fodder, in particular, keeps dying, provoking one unwinnable by-election after another. The play’s climax is the drama over whether or not the whips will demand the presence of the terminally ill Alf Batley in the noconfidence vote. Airey Neave is blown up. Even Big Ben stops. What is dying, of course, is the postwar political consensus, and slouching towards Bethlehem is the member for Finchley.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis