Tomorrow's world

Theatre - A visceral portrait of dystopia both grips and mystifies, writes Michael Portillo


In his new play, Mark Ravenhill transports us to a nightmarish future. Something called "the cut" plays an important, if controversial, part in that society of tomorrow. It is administered by a suited civil-servant type to a shoeless man dressed only in a sort of red pyjama outfit that calls Guantanamo Bay to mind.

Whether the cut is a lobotomy or actually lethal is not explained. Has the man been convicted, or is the procedure part of a programme of social control? Society has its winners and losers, that much is clear. The victim, John, indicates that his ancestors all had the cut. He is black and the civil servant, Paul, is white, but maybe that is merely a coincidence.

The paradox is that the captive wants to undergo the operation, while the official would rather persuade him to choose another route. Paul is terrified of the spiritual pain he will suffer if forced to administer the cut. He offers prison or university as options. Paul confides that he has a son in each. In tomorrow's world there seems to be little difference between the two.

Leaflets help the victim make his selection. Ravenhill uses all the jargon of modern government to suggest that the hellish world he has created is not far removed from our time or our way of thinking. Paul complains of new directives received every day, and has targets and performance indicators to conform to.

A policy of inclusiveness has led him to employ a nurse who is deaf and cannot speak. He runs through a feedback form with John, dwelling on the question of whether he was subject to any unnecessary brutality, asking him to assess his pre-cut treatment on a scale of one to five. He describes the reforms to the cut brought in by the new government: a programme called "Softening the Blow". He might as well be discussing improvements to the national curriculum.

Paul is clearly disillusioned with his work. He fears assassination but flirts with suicide. It weighs on him that he is too ashamed of what he does to tell his beautiful wife. Their love life is at a low ebb. Perhaps the burden of his secret makes him screw up his eyes during sex. It certainly puts her off that, when they make love, he appears to be grieving.

Why John demands the cut in preference to the easier options is harder to fathom. He says he wants to be released from the pains of consciousness, which Paul regards as misplaced idealism. There could be a political motive. Agitation against the cut is brewing in the universities.

Ian McKellen, as Paul, gives a magnificent performance. He does the little things so well: absent-mindedly stirring his coffee or ticking boxes on his forms. In a scene with his wife, he silently reads a newsy letter from their son Stephen. As he takes in each sentence, McKellen delivers a series of facial reactions that are perfectly measured and timed - and utterly convincing.

Jimmy Akingbola plays his victim. It is a hard part, given how little we understand his position, and the performance is complicated by a passage during which the roles are partially reversed: John becomes the dominant figure when he hypnotises Paul. Now it is the official who longs to be permanently released from consciousness. But Akingbola always makes an adequate foil for McKellen.

When Paul goes home after his gruesome day at work, we encounter another facet of Ravenhill's grim future. Paul's wife, Susan (Deborah Findlay), is obsessed by the shortcomings of her house servant. Complaining about how the girl breaks crockery or fails as a cook occupies Susan completely and wears her out. In a desperate search for some release, she has even decided to do some of the shopping herself. Whenever Paul tells her how much he loves her, she strays again to the topic of shoddy housework. There is bite to the part as well. Susan has had a vision of her husband at work - or maybe that is her way of saying that she has discovered his secret. Influenced by Stephen's university radicalism, she rounds on her husband for his shameful employment. Findlay carries the part superbly.

In a short final scene, Paul is confronted by Stephen (Tom Burke). Time has passed and there has been a change of regime. Stephen has moved on from student politics to become a man of influence. Paul stands condemned by both the new administration and his son. He wins at least some of our sympathy because we saw him struggling to escape administering the cut, to avoid doing what he was paid to do. Also, nothing about Stephen makes us think that the world has become a better place.

Ravenhill's play, directed by Michael Grandage, contains interesting ideas. I had a feeling that somehow it had not achieved its full potential or quite carried its point home. But there is enough good writing and acting to guarantee enjoyment.

Booking on 0870 060 6624 to 1 April, then touring to the Lowry, Salford (0870 787 5790), Bristol Old Vic (0117 987 7877) and Liverpool Playhouse (0151 709 4776)

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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