Mark Douet
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Incurable romantics: Don Juan in Soho and William Wordsworth

Byron floats in the background of Nicholas Pierpan’s William Wordsworth and Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho

The first chapter in any handbook on how to run a regional theatre would stress the importance of telling stories of local importance. Conrad Lynch, taking over stewardship of the artistically sharp and stunningly situated Theatre by the Lake, couldn’t have started much closer to home than with the world premiere production of William Wordsworth by Nicholas Pierpan.

The trap with a Wordsworth biodrama is offering a greatest hits from the life and writing, but Pierpan is disciplined about both risks. Only two poems are spoken – including “There Was a Boy”, in circumstances of personal extremity – and the time frame freezes in 1812.

Strikingly, this Wordsworth is only once seen outside, and even then in a cemetery, evidence of the playwright’s strategy to counter the stubborn historical image of the nature poet delivering soliloquies to daffodils. Instead Pierpan focuses on Wordsworth’s human nature. The poet is suffering crises professional – he has ceased to publish, fearing a dearth of receptive readers and reviewers – and medical: bursts of blindness and a son with measles, at that time often fatal. But his greatest pressure is financial: the long historical dilemma of how to be a radical and pay the rent.

There might have been fears that a play staged so close to Wordsworth’s birthplace in Cockermouth would give home advantage to the poet, but John Sackville’s ascetic, even priggish William has to fight for the audience’s sympathy against the sensual, rambunctious Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Daniel Abelson). The play vividly sketches the men’s tense friendship.

This venue is a nightmare for designers, because even a seven-figure budget and the hottest digital technology couldn’t match the astonishing natural cyclorama of lake, park and hills outside the theatre’s front door. Andrew D Edwards, however, creates an elegant box of sliding interior schemes with distorted images of the Lake District, like abstract postcards, beyond.

The director, Michael Oakley, has assembled an impressive cast that also features Terence Wilton, whose enjoyably pompous Lonsdale proves more cunning than he seems, and Joseph Mydell as Sir George Beaumont, the middleman between the poets and the establishment they despise politically but need financially. With some tightening of dialogue and a less abrupt ending, English Touring Theatre, the co-producer, could have a hit.

In Pierpan’s play, Byron is always just about to come on (at one point literally: he’s said to be outside the door), but, like Shakespeare in Peter Whelan’s The Herbal Bed, he never arrives, and presumably for the same reason: that he would stop the show if he did. Byron also attends from a distance the action of Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho, his great poem “Don Juan” having been vital in defining the character of the Spanish libertine. But Marber is more directly indebted to Molière – whose 1665 comedy he has relocated and updated for a play first seen in 2006 – and to Mozart: the music from Don Giovanni for the descent into hell starts and concludes a soundtrack that also intermittently breaks into dance music.

In Marber’s modernisation, the doomed seducer becomes “DJ”, an aristocrat whose addictions to drink and drugs and sex would lead to all leave being cancelled at the Priory. The scroll of the don’s conquests, a central feature in the opera, is now kept on a shag-app stored on the iPhone of his valet, Stan. In this contemporary, secular setting, damnation does not seem real, and Marber also removes the possible consequences of reckless sex: disease and descendants. The sense of danger that Molière, Mozart and Byron brought to the story crackles only in a scene where DJ tries to provoke a Muslim street-sleeper to blaspheme for profit by insulting the Prophet, and a provocative speech in which DJ argues that he deserves heroic status for not being hypocritical about his greed and selfishness, unlike a roll-call of media and social media offenders encompassing politicians, bankers, coppers, celebrities, bloggers and vloggers.

The reason for this lavish West End revival is the casting in the title part of David Tennant, who vies with Benedict Cumberbatch for Britain’s most bankable male actor. As in Broadchurch, he is a pleasure to watch, his performance a detailed accumulation of meticulous vocal and bodily decisions, as when, by waiting, DJ forces Stan to move a glass on a table closer three times before he will condescend to drink from it.

Few in the audience will have bought tickets specifically to watch Adrian Scarborough as Stan, but all will go home thrilled to have seen him. In a fair world, this tremendous actor (adept at finding the tragedy in comedy, and vice versa) would be as well known as Tennant. But, as all versions of the Don Juan legend attest, just deserts are sometimes slow to come.

“William Wordsworth” is at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, Cumbria, until 22 April

“Don Juan in Soho” is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London WC2, until 10 June

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist