Theatre in Wales

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David Edgar On Citizenship: Contender for Best Play of 2008?

David Edgar

Testing the Echo- Out of Joint , Birmingham Rep & Touring , June 18, 2008
David Edgar by Testing the Echo- Out of Joint “What is the capital of Scotland? Is it (a) Penzance or (b) Aberystwyth?” The setting, in scene thirty–two of David Edgar’s pulsating new play on nationality, citizenship and language, is an anonymous workplace canteen. Aspirant British citizen Chong enjoys a matey relationship with his fellow workers Derek, Chloe and Joshua; the question is a piece of jokey “assistance” they give him as he prepares for his Citizenship Test. Chong opts for “Aberystwyth”.

This quartet is just four from two dozen characters in Out of Joint’s exuberant production. Historians and civil servants, local officials and middle class dinner party guests tumble on stage, played with speed and versatility by the company of four women and four men.

These established British characters rub up against a dozen would-be citizens. “Testing the Echo” is a mirror image, or a companion piece, to Edgar’s 1994 “Pentecost”. In that play a mixed refugee group invaded a church in an unnamed Balkan country. The nationalities and languages on stage included Azeri, Arabic, German, Russian and Turkish. In 2008 the aspirant Britons come from Congo, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Pakistan, Serbia, Ukraine and Zimbabwe. The languages on stage include Somali, Korean, Arabic and Albanian- albeit with a Kosovo dialect as the script makes clear.

As is customary in David Edgar’s later drama there is a quantity of sheer information. Officialdom’s attempt to pin down Britishness via the textbook “Life in the United Kingdom” is shown to be a minefield, replete with irony and some unintended humour. Two civil servants describe the differences between the first and second editions, whereby the paragon nation acquires a little verbal humility.

Edition one reads: “In 1707 came the Act of Union with Scotland.” Edition two:” The English put pressure on the Scots to join England in an Act of Union.” Edition one: “The English like to think that theirs is the mother of parliaments.” Edition two: “The English Parliament was not unique.” In the revised version even Red Nose Day is called in as a part of “us-ness.”

David Edgar does not labour the point- he has enough to dramatise- but the approach to citizenship is one of a piece with other public policy. If enough facts can be accumulated somehow that will make the difference. “How many members are there in the Welsh Assembly?” comes an early question, likely to fox more than a few. But then as a blog unfurling on a large screen rear-stage has it “We don’t have to pass the test. We don’t have to! We were born here!”

The core of 'Testing the Echo” is the quicksand of language that belies the pile-up of facts. A historian stands up and calls for “a halt to the long and baleful period of national apology.” Another says of citizenship - “an almost perfect way to destroy two thousand years of British culture, history and tradition.”

The play reminds us anyhow that the history of Britishness is ripe with uncertainty. The United Kingdom in its present form dates from 1921. The first institution to be named British was a bank. The first time a monarch lay in state in Westminster Abbey was in 1910.

Chong and his workmates are one of several subplots. They supplement his language classes with useful vocabulary like “binge drinking” and “mugging”, along with the actions to help him The dramatic centre of the play, however, unrolls in a London language class in which a half-dozen new-comers are being taught English and citizenship. Here the tolerance of liberalism is snared on the ambiguities of language as the relationship between teacher Emma and pupil Nasim turns rancid.

The deteriorating relationship escalates towards a disciplinary procedure, hinging as they do on remembered words and actions. Early on Emma has taught about stress. The meaning of a phrase “You can leave the room” is all in the stress. No knowledge of whether the Prime Minister’s residence is in Downing Street or Lambeth Palace can short-cut that subtlety of understanding.

In this forum of allegiance even the pupils' introductions to one another can become a source of discord. When Jasminka, the Kosovan au pair girl turned prostitute, makes her introduction it induces a sour response. “Nema zemlje Kosovo” is the muttered response from a fellow pupil, a Serb. “There is no country called Kosovo.” When Jasminka hears the word “earshot” she makes a puzzled gun gesture against her head.

Criticism has begun to take David Edgar for granted but there is no-one to match his particular blend of ambition and intellect. In its dozens of sharp scenes with little in the way of scenery or set pieces "Testing the Echo” is not about emotional intensity; that is not its point. What the audience gets to see is the world around that it never sees, the Pole behind the counter in Londis, the Kurd selling “the Big Issue,” the Czechs picking apples in Herefordshire. To see that world that we hardly see up on stage is exhilarating in itself.

In its quickness and dialectic I was taken back to a play I once saw, by chance, “The Case of the Workers’ Plane.” That too was by David Edgar and it was the first time I saw that theatre could be not only fast, funny and topical but do things that the other arts could not.

“Testing the Echo” travelled widely, even got to Holland, but sadly never made it over the border here. However, publisher Nick Hern has put together a script with an exceptionally interesting array of material. These include an essay by Professor Bernard Crick, moving spirit behind the teaching of citizenship in schools. (The last alert ex-sixth-former I spoke to on the topic looked back on it with a mixture of mockery and contempt.)

Also in a foreward to the script Canadian-now-Briton Abdul-Rehman Malik writes “A country forged from the union of four “nations” has identity crisis woven into the very fabric of its existence.” The editors also include a quotation, dated January 2006. “The Olympics is but one example of a national project which is uniting the country.” And the author of this view? One Gordon Brown.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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