Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.
Imagine if Mamma Mia had a message. Imagine if you could learn something about the state of society and political apathy and inequality and multiculturalism and love all while tapping your toes along to some of the stinkiest, stonkingest cheese that pop music has ever produced. That may sound crazy, but it’s exactly what Chris Thompson’s Albion does – the story of a far right group set to karaoke tunes.
A pub atmosphere fills the theatre, a chattering audience, songs over speakers, the thack of cue hitting pool balls. The stage is set with a bar, heavily patterned upholstery covers pub stools and carpets – except here they are not faded or soaked with stale beer. The Albion pub is an East End boozer, the last bastion of the indigenous English population, a community that’s seen its jobs go to immigrants who will work for lower wages, that’s seen mosques pop up all over the place and political correctness encroaching on every aspect of their lives, stifling their freedom of speech. On the pub’s makeshift stage, Paul, self-proclaimed leader of the EPA, makes rousing speeches while his younger, gay brother Jayson runs the karaoke.
Each scene is accompanied by the best of pop, song titles and lyrics appearing on screens around the stage. The extreme popularity of musicals suggests that songs express, or at least evoke, emotion more immediately and more succinctly than words can. To have these characters talking about racism and homophobia and sexual abuse then breaking into song is so brilliantly inappropriate, the absurd contrast highlighting the seriousness of what they are saying. It hits upon the paradox that pop songs are simultaneously inadequate and powerful. And the songs – I Will Survive, Eye Of The Tiger, Delilah – once ridiculous now acquire an added poignancy.
Thompson battles a barrage of controversies. Jayson and Paul have a sister who dies on duty in the Middle East, their friend Kyle is black, he’s just lost his job to a migrant. Christine has been sacked as a social worker because of a child abuse scandal that wasn’t her fault. Jayson and his boyfriend Aashir have a tender, gay, mixed race relationship that is an oddly progressive setup in the characters’ otherwise regressive world.
The obvious message to take away from Albion would be that it’s asking us to rethink far right groups, that it’s asking us to empathise and understand. But I don’t think that’s right. It’s giving voice to views that get shouted down and ridiculed by left wingers, but it’s still condemnatory. And the condemnation is just as bitter towards those cowed into extreme political correctness – like the social workers who would not let Christine use the word ‘Asian’ to talk about Asian men, who sent her on a diversity course. Being afraid to talk about race is probably as much about terminology as anything – the fear of causing offence by using the wrong word, even if it’s with the right intention. Paul is coached by Christine so that he can sound palatable – “don’t say ‘a gay’, say ‘LGBTQAI community’, don’t say ‘Muslims’, say ‘Islamic extremists’”.
Political correctness stems from a desire not to cause offence. It is about concern for others. The view of the EPA, that political correctness stifles freedom of speech, is born from selfishness, from the supposition that you should be allowed to say whatever you want without worrying about offence that it could cause. I suppose what wins out is whether you value concern for others over concern for yourself.
There’s a responsibility for the playwright to know the audience, that portraying a working class community to a middle class audience inevitably sets up an ‘us against them’ dynamic. It’s a bit zoo-like, a window onto a world I don’t recognise and don’t like the look of, and my reaction is probably always going to be wrong, or at least problematic. So I’m torn: if I pity the characters it could come across as patronising. If I agree with them, I could come across as a bigot. If I hate them I am intolerant. I could try to sympathise with them as people, but not their views, picking and choosing aspects of them that are agreeable to me. Which is what they do – Kyle and Jayson usurp Paul as EPA leaders, but Paul claims no one will take orders from ‘a black and a gay’. They point out that what is important for Jayson is not that he’s gay but that he’s white and for Kyle not that he’s black but that he’s straight.
What are the chances that anyone in the audience agrees with (or would admit to agreeing with) the views presented by the characters on stage? I like the idea of redressing balance, of finding value in the supposedly valueless, of reaching out and denying the instinct to leap to ridicule and blind condemnation when discussing groups like the EDL. We have to stop believing in our own superiority. But it is sad that groups like that exist.
If there is anything reassuring to take away from this frightening play, it is that the far right groups, groups like the EDL, are still run from pubs and living rooms. They make noise and they get media coverage, but they are – for the moment – small, disorganised affairs. And they have been for a while – it’s nothing new. A neon walkway runs across the stage like a seam of light, changing colour in different scenes. At one point it lights up bright red, like a lurid river of blood.
Bella, horrida bella, et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno.