Serenading Louie, and 11 and 12

A snapshot of 1970s Chicago is poignant yet unconvincing.

To write a play as jaded as Serenading Louie you would, I had suspected, need to be very young. In fact, Lanford Wilson, one of those Nobel prizewinners most of us are vague about, was 33 when it was first performed in 1970, the same age as the four characters whose marriages it mercilessly flails. In his introduction to a new edition, he admits, however, that the play was composed from fragments of dialogue he had eavesdropped during his first jobs in ad agencies. As a child of a divorce, how Wilson must have relished hearing his every bitter prejudice about marriage confirmed!

The play's puzzling title is taken from an old Yale song briefly sung by the quartet (graduates of the inferior Chicago Northwestern); its key line is: "We are poor little lambs who have lost our way." In consequence of the randomness with which it was written, plotting is not its strong point. It takes time for us to learn, and even longer to care, that Alex, the crusading lawyer contemplating a political career, has fallen in love with a pert young student - and it is a relief to be let in on this, as his hatred for his loyal if talkative wife Gabrielle has hitherto appeared unearned. His college friend Carl, in contrast, is deeply in love with his wife, Mary (Geraldine Somerville), who is having an affair. When, in the final ten minutes, the plot gathers itself and hurtles towards a tragic conclusion, it becomes ridiculous. It is a shame, for by then Serenading Louie has successfully explored a new form, something nearer encounter therapy.

It befalls Charlotte Emmerson as Gabby to kickstart proceedings and she wobbles a little in a distracted monologue whose climax is her spotting a drunken fly on the windowsill. The fly is in the same state of spiritual lassitude as Gabby and her friends. Nothing flies for anyone. Love, says Alex (played by Jason Butler Harner, very uncomfortable in his own skin, or at least his suit), "is only a neurosis everyone agrees to have together". Carl (Jason O'Mara) considers it unlikely that his teenage hunch that God exists is correct. Politics, both men agree, is a fix. Alex complains that even sex no longer works for him; the two couples see Deep Throat and hate it. Only nostalgia and the booze flow easily. When Carl was 12, he recalls, the whole country prayed for a little girl who had fallen down a well. Such a feat of collective focus would never happen now (except it did, Carl forgets, for the moon landing in 1969).

The couples, in an Ayckbourn-style device, live in identical Chicago apartments. This necessitates only the one set, and halfway through Act II the characters begin to occupy the same space and time, as if haunting one another's lives. The play has become a single conversation about why the American dream ain't all it is cracked up to be. The drunken or dope-fuelled whining sometimes grates but the acting, although uneven, finds sincerity and power in Wilson's dialogue. Serenading Louie is an emotional snapshot, but the director, Simon Curtis, makes it a sharp portrait.

As a night out, Serenading Louie's narcissistic dilemmas certainly beat the pseudo-profound moral certainties offered by the octogenarian director Peter Brook in 11 and 12, a play by Marie-Hélène Estienne, showing at the Barbican. In different hands, this true fable of Africans bashing each other up over an abstruse dispute about whether a Muslim prayer should be recited 11 or 12 times might make superb black comedy. Here, however, the Sufi leader who converts from Elevenism to Twelvism, Tierno Bokar (Makram J Khoury, so pious you want to belt him) is treated with the respect that the theatrical guru Brook no doubt believes due himself. The real villains, naturally, are a succession of bemused French governors.

Brook is convinced that theatre can be both a religious and a dramatic experience. This is neither. You'd have to be 84 and living in Paris to get away with it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times.

“Serenading Louie" is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, until 27 March. “11 and 12" is at the Barbican, London EC2, until 27 February, and then touring.

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 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.