Review – Death and the King’s Horseman, National Theatre

Wednesday 8 April 2009
death-and-the-kings-horsemanTo: nhytner@nationaltheatre.org.uk
From: genuinebusinessman@nigeriatel.com
Subject: Confidential Proposal

Dear Friend
I wish to approach you with a request
that would be of immense benefit to
both of us. 

I have the courage to Crave indulgence
for this important business believing
that you will never let me down either
now or in the future.

I work in the cultural department of Lagos,
Nigeria and I write you in respect of a very
famous playwright of this country. His name
is Wole Soyinka.

In 1975 Mr Soyinka wrote a play called
Death and the King's Horseman. Since that
time no-one in your country has shown any
interest in the play and it has been lying
in a secret a/c here in Niegria.

Based on the reason that nobody has come forward
to show any interest in the play I look for trust
friend in the UK who can help to put it on.
Otherwise it will revert to the ownership of the
Nigerian Government.

If you put on in the UK this play could earn $12
trillion (TWELVE TRILLION DOLLARS) for the right
theatre and that is why I write to you.

If put on in the UK with a big trusted director
like Mr Rufus Norris perhaps the people of London
will pay as much as £10 (TEN POUNDS) to see it, especially
if it is put on with dancing and sweeping and DRUMMING. 

Perhaps Mr Norris can put in lots of "business" such
as DRUMMING to make the running time longer and people
will feel good about what they get for their TEN POUNDS.
Especially when you say it finishes at 9.50PM but
then it goes on until 10.15.

Death and The King's Horseman is based on a real
incident that took place in Nigeria during British
colonial rule when the ritual suicide of the
Horseman of an important chief was prevented by the
intervention of the colonial authorities. However
you can save this all until Act 2 having padded
out Act 1 with a lot of business in the
marketplace and DRUMMING.

It will also look nice because you can send Mr Norris
and his creative team over her to Nigeria to buy things.
Do not worry about the cost because this play could make
$12 trillion (TWELVE TRILLION DOLLARS).

If this proposal is acceptable by you, do not take undue
advantage of the trust I have bestowed in you, I await
your urgent mail.

Best regards

No 1 Nigerian Scam Agency
About these ads

76 Responses to “Review – Death and the King’s Horseman, National Theatre”

  1. Mark Shenton Says:

    Sheer genius! I can’t imagine this review being bettered for comic or imaginative flair, and it was such a pleasure to come back from the first night to find this. But Michael Billington in today’s Guardian gives the production four stars….

  2. sandown Says:

    Why “But …” ? Billington writes for the Guardian newspaper. It would be more than his job is worth to give a bad review to a Third World-type production.

  3. Julia Says:

    Pure brilliance. My parents had much the same reaction.

  4. Baz B Says:

    very funny notice.However,I wonder if the reviewer stayed for the second act?I suspect not.It’s a thousand times better than act 1.Jenny Jukles in white face is sublime.It’s true, there’s a lot of drumming in act 1 and that’s somewhat patronising.But, if you paid attention in act 2, there’s important stuff going on about how you white dudes treated Africans.My father and grand-father were kings in Oyo State,the area featured in the play, so I had an interest in the drama .Perhaps ,I could arrange for you guys to visit Nigera.You’d be very welcome.Just send me your credit card number and I’ll arrange it.We’re not all scam merchants.

  5. Suzie Bee Says:

    But was the drumming any good? :)

  6. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Gotta say, I’m on side with it as well… even though at times I did keep recalling my favourite shaggy dog story: “Don’t the drums EVER STOP?!” – “Drums stop: very bad. Drums stop… BASS SOLO!” And fair dos, the programme says it’s 2h20m, but the clocks at the box office get the duration right.

    Also, could you possibly re-format the review in a slightly larger point size? All this criticising is making me go blind.

  7. Arch Proscenium Says:

    I enjoyed the second half much more than the first. I’d left by then and was in the bar of a local pub.

    There might well be a reason why this play hasn’t been staged in London before. Any suggestions anyone?


  8. Will you ever ran out of creative ideas, Andrew & Phil? Thanks for this hoot of a review!

  9. Olatunde Says:

    Incredible… I went to see the play on press night and was very impressed; even though it was slow moving at first by the end I couldn’t help but be moved both emotionally and intellectually. The fact that you think it is acceptable to write a review in that fashion is a testament to your cultural insensitivity. If I reviewed a Jewish play using the unrepresentative language of money hoarding tight-fisted lawyer would you all gather round and have a jolly good laugh?

    It is obvious you misunderstood or could not understand the importance of a play, which deals with the issues of European insensitivity and lack of understanding of other cultural manifestations. To all those who are genuinely of an open mind, go and see Death and the Kings Horseman, it is delightful and insightful theatre!

    • Helen Smith Says:

      Yes, wasn’t colonialism awful?

      The whiteface was very funny (and I loved the lamp) but the play itself is horribly dated. Although it was written in 1975 and portrays events from 1946 (set a few years earlier) unfortunately (apart from the whiteface) there’s no attempt to filter these events through modern eyes or to use them to illuminate our understanding of Nigeria in 2009 – a place where corruption and torture are widespread, where caning is legal, where a woman can be sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, and where there is horrible iniquity between rich and poor. And yes, a place whose most famous contribution to modern ‘cultural manifestations’ is the 419 email scam.

      If it’s OK to laugh about black actors playing white characters as insensitive colonialists with clipped accents in the play or to poke fun at the British with the much-lauded leg crossing scene in the play (and it is) then surely it’s OK to laugh at a review that references Nigerian email scammers.

      I got more jolly good laughs out of this review than I did out of the play: I was invited to laugh along at the assault and humiliation of the policemen in the marketplace but I only wondered why such people took the jobs in the first place if it made them so hated. Because they had to feed their families? Presumably they didn’t have the choice of a life of noble revelry unlike their cosseted chief. Unfortunately there’s no hope of learning anything about it from the play.

      And I found it very uncomfortable to sit through the scene where the polygamous King’s Horseman marries a young woman (‘cutting through the knot of her virginity’ wasn’t that the phrase?) If that was a reference to the genital mutilation of women in Nigeria, the characters on stage seemed to approve. What about the estimated 800,000 young women and girls in the country who are suffering from fistula after being forced into marriage and therefore childbirth at an early age. Or the two and a half million people infected with HIV, many of them young women infected by their older husband who have had multiple sexual partners? Am I really supposed to think it’s a good thing that a man who’s about to commit ritual suicide celebrates by having sex with a young girl? Claire Benedict did a good job of passing round the semen-stained cloth with GREAT DIGNITY but I still felt uncomfortable.

      But that’s another thing – why were all the Africans portrayed either as VERY DIGNIFIED or as gurning, prancing fools with a penchant for drumming?

      It’s good to see so many black actors in work but it isn’t exactly The Wire, is it?

    • DeccaQ Says:

      The review is a parody of an email scam that exists – I’ve two of the damn things in my email box right now.
      I’m not sure there is an unrepresentative language of money-hording tight-fisted lawyers that could be used to parody a Jewish play – but, oy vey, I suspect there’s been many a parody of Jewish speech patterns used to review Woody Allen or Fiddler on the Roof.
      And the target of the parody was the National & this particular play – not Nigeria or Nigerians & not even Wole Soyinka.
      The whingers didn’t like the play – that’s always going to feel unfair to anyone who likes it – but to accuse them of cultural insensitivity is ridiculous.
      I went to see a Ghanaian play; tons of drumming, completely mad plot, lots of slagging off Nigeria for being bigger & I loved it – but each to his own.


  10. I’m afraid I’m with Olatunde here. Whatever the virtues or otherwise of the play (I only know the text, which is beautiful) the Nigerian scam thing is, well, thoughtless. Sorry Andrew and Phil, I’m a big fan of your site, but this scraped badly… And Helen, it kind of misses the point to suggest that minority culture parodies of colonial attitudes equate to colonial cultural insensitivities, which had very real and deadly implications for the people at the pointy end of them. And of the discomforts of traditional culture: were you really “supposed to think it was a good thing”? I rather suspect you’re assuming something that the author doesn’t necessarily intend.

    • DeccaQ Says:

      Anti-colonialism has a pointy-end too; I’m not sure any white farmers in Zimbabwe, or Tutsis in Rwanda (who were murdered for being an elite under white rule) would be overjoyed if this play was performed in their neighbourhood…
      Any negative stereotype can have violent consequences – even if you’re stereotyping colonialists and the Africans who worked for them… (a far more dangerous thing than mocking a scam letter – unless the whingers did it constantly – implied that it was a reason why we should be angry at Nigerians – and founded a political group with the aim of making sure Nigerians weren’t allowed access to the internet by any means necessary – which might cut into their Merlot time).

      • DeccaQ Says:

        Nigerian culture isn’t minority culture – when it’s actually from Nigeria.
        It’s only minority culture if it originates from someone living in a place that isn’t Nigeria.

        We’re not the centre of the Universe – other places do exist… like – China, it’s huge and full of people that didn’t watch Jade Goody’s funeral on the news. Probably.

  11. Rufus Says:

    Olatunde, Alison Croggon,

    ‘the Nigerian scam thing is, well, thoughtless.’

    No its not. Its brilliantly thought through, like the rest of the review. Hilarious.

    The whingers take the p*ss. That’s the point. Out of everyone. Or would you prefer them in future to take the p*ss out of everyone except Nigeria?

    Because that’s not patronising. Do you even know what the word patronising means?

  12. Helen Smith Says:

    Yes but it’s so cheap to accuse someone who doesn’t like a play of ‘cultural insensitivity’ (i.e. racism) or suggest that they ‘misunderstood or could not understand the importance’ of the play. Can’t anyone just go and see a play at The National any more and think it’s dull, dated and has a little too much drumming in it?

    Remember the furore after England People Very Nice, when anyone who laughed was accused of being racist (fortunately I’m in the clear on that one; I didn’t laugh once). And now, if people don’t enjoy Death and the King’s Horseman, it’s because they can’t or won’t understand its importance?

    As for cultural insensitivity, the Whingers’ review is clearly intended as a joke, with Nicholas Hytner its target – in tone, it’s reminiscent of their review of Michael Frayn’s Afterlife on here, which was also very funny and which also affectionately lampooned NH, suggesting that he’d put on the play by mistake.

    Obviously I can’t speak for the author’s intentions in Death and the King’s Horseman but I felt the eve of suicide marriage was portrayed with romanticism, as part of a meaningful ritual that was about to be interrupted by the policemen. I like a ritual suicide as much as the next person, especially if it’s wrapped up in mythology and presented as a spectacle (and so long as it doesn’t involve the forced immolation of an Indian widow). But I wasn’t carried along enough by the story and I saw the marriage as evidence of the chief’s sense of entitlement and a reminder of the oppression of women in that part of the world.

    I particularly disliked the scene where the mob tries to pull down the policeman’s trousers in the market. With the benefit of hindsight, safe in our English houses and with social security, free health care and education and so on, it’s easy to disapprove of the role of Nigerians who worked for white colonialist bosses sixty years ago – given the choices shown to us by history, we’d all play the hero and do the right thing, right? But I couldn’t laugh at the individuals in that scene, especially as the policemen were portrayed on stage as fools rather than evil. Remember those two idiot soldiers who were killed by the mob in Belfast in 1988 after they went sight-seeing at an IRA funeral? They were killed and stripped, the bare buttocks of their beaten bodies shown on the news. It reminded me of that.

    So anyway, we all laugh at different things.

  13. Helen Smith Says:

    Sorry, my comment was for Alison/Olutunde not Rufus – his comment didn’t show up when I started typing. Now I feel like an arse complaining about the play as he was so gracious about the Whingers’ review. Ah well.

  14. Bennyboo Says:

    Helen,

    It’s fine to think that a play is dull, dated and has a little too much drumming in it. And the Whingers are more than capable of conveying all this without resorting to the kind of gimmick used above.

    In using a cultural point of reference which reduces Nigerians to a stereotype, they are being culturally insensitive. Which is a shame, because I like reading the Whingers’ reviews. I think they just missed the mark here.

    As for the play romanticising tribal practices – I really didn’t take that away from the production and I’m sure that it is not Soyinka’s intention to do so. Granted – it is cheap to accuse someone of having misunderstood a play because they didn’t enjoy it, but it’s perfectly acceptable if they fail to engage with any of the ideas or arguments that a play puts forward.

    Best,

    Ben

    • Ian Shuttleworth Says:

      Would anyone care to actually explain why this degree of “cultural insensitivity” – and it clearly *is* a matter of degree, because this quality equally clearly isn’t just an on/off binary – is an incontestably Bad Thing? And I mean “explain”, not just re-state it in other ways or introduce thin-end-of-wedge speculation or Godwin’s-law-infringing analogies.

      What is the acceptable degree of insensitivity, or conversely the required minimum of sensitivity? And why? How far is this from it? Why do we need to be protected from such jokes – are we that delicate little flowers? Does respect not rather include crediting ourselves and each other with enough substance to be able to take a bit of ribbing?

      For comparison, I have no problems in saying that the whiteface acting in the play *is* racist but is *not* offensive. Can we handle such complex ideas, do we think? (Yes, that *is* patronising – deal with it.)

      • Bennyboo Says:

        Ian – x is racist if x propagates the belief that one race is inherently superior to another race and consequently fosters hateful and discriminatory attitudes towards that race. How is the whiteface acting racist?

        You are right, though, that being racist does not necessarily imply being offensive: for example racism is never offensive to racists (ie. they do not get offended by it). This is fairly self-evident though, so I’m not sure what point you are trying to make. Are you saying it’s ok to be a racist, or just making a confused argument about linguistics?

        As for cultural insensitivity – whether or not it is a “Bad Thing” depends on the context rather than the “degree of insensitivity” as you rather disengenuously suggest. In a public forum such as this, I would argue that a joke which, at least in part, trades on the idea of reducing Nigerian theatre-makers (or indeed, anyone in Nigeria trying to export anything out of the country) to a negative stereotype is not acceptable. Amongst friends, round the dinner table, it might be a good laugh.

        What is more disappointing, however, is the lack of imagination the review displays, and the fact that a lot of the people here think that a review about a Nigerian play in the form of a scam email is one of the most fabulously witty and incisive things they have ever read.

        I hope I’ve managed to provide satisfactory answers to your questions.

        Best,

        B

  15. Helen Smith Says:

    I shouldn’t have been so irked by Olatunde’s comment. As he saw the show on press night, he probably knows someone connected to the production and was just trying to be supportive.

    I admire Wole Soyinka, I didn’t hate the play and the first thing I thought when I saw the rather beautiful production was not necessarily ‘fistula’. I was perched on a very, very high horse when I wrote that. I have since dismounted to commit a kind of ritual suicide of my own by commenting repeatedly on here. If only they had a delete button but they don’t.


  16. Whingers – OK. I get it. Too long and too much drumming. But, novel though this review format it, it doesn’t actually tell us very much about the play. Was the acting any good? Any shining moments of brilliance/awfulness? Was the set interesting in any way? Even if it was so bad you have nothing to say, at least say that. Rather disappointed with this uninformative (and, while it is not necessarily offensive, it does unnecessarily pander to stereotypes) review.

  17. Jim Says:

    I went to see the play this evening and loved it, as did most of the audience as far as I could see. And Silly me for clicking on a link entitled ‘Review – Death and the King’s Horseman’, hoping to see a review of Death and the King’s Horseman rather than a lazy, self-satisfied excuse for a joke. And yes, if the idea of a play set in 1940s Nigeria with *drumming* in it brings you out in spots then maybe you really are as juvenile as the oh-so-wacky 419 reference suggests.

  18. hedgie Says:

    Whoa! I love the WEW reviews for their brilliant snarky inventiveness, and this one’s a classic.

    It’s hardly patronising or culturally insensitive if they treat the play they way they do everything else they see. The review clearly indicates what the WEWs felt about the production, which is all one really requires of a review, except they accomplish this task with more audacious wit than a mainstream reviewer would dare commit to print.

  19. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Bennyboo:

    “How is the whiteface acting racist?” – in exactly the same way as blackface acting by white performers is racist. It’s surely not the case that racism can’t be perpetrated against a dominant grouping, or if so, why?

    “Are you saying it’s ok to be a racist, or just making a confused argument about linguistics?” – neither. I’m saying that offence does not inhere in material; it’s something that’s taken, not given. If we decide not to take offence, something is not offensive. This also exposes the often appropriative and condescending nature of taking offence on behalf of others when insulting, parodic or other material is not aimed at us or our grouping.

    “a joke which, at least in part, trades on the idea of reducing Nigerian theatre-makers (or indeed, anyone in Nigeria trying to export anything out of the country) to a negative stereotype” – I think this is a fine example of what I’ve just said (unless you are a Nigerian theatre-maker or exporter, in which case we can get down to specifics), and I think that such an evaluation of the review is frankly tosh.

    “I hope I’ve managed to provide satisfactory answers to your questions” – I don’t see any answers to any of them in what you’ve written; as far as I can see, you’ve responded to one or two questions that you prefer I’d asked but none of those that I did.

  20. Bennyboo Says:

    Ian:

    Since you do not challenge my definition of racism, I’m assuming that you believe that the whiteface acting in Death and the King’s Horseman is a way of claiming that black people are superior to white people and thus of inspiring hatred / suspicion of / discrimination against white people. Do you really think that’s what the production was trying to convey by using this theatrical device?

    Please, please tell me that you’re not seriously drawing a comparison between blackface acting and the whiting up used in the current production at the National. Or that you’re just doing so in the spirit of socratic enquiry. Otherwise, for a man who complains about the unsound drawing of analogies, you’re certainly coming up with some pretty dubious ones yourself.

    “offence does not inhere in material; it’s something that’s taken, not given” – this is my point when I say that a racist statement is not necessarily an offensive statement, apologies if I did not spell it out clearly enough. However, attitudes which objectify, vilify, reduce to a sterotype, etc. do inhere in material. I do not object because I am taking offence on the part of others, but because I believe that there are certain ways of speaking about people which are not acceptable because they objectify, vilify, perpetuate stereotypes, etc. If your argument were allowed to stand, speaking out against any kind of discrimination would be patronising unless one were a member of the group which was being targeted. This is patently absurd.

    As for answering your questions – I took you to be seriously asking about why I thought the review had attained a degree of insensitivity which was unacceptable. I replied that you were being disengenuous: that it wasn’t about a sliding scale, but about context. Perhaps I misunderstood you… If all your questions were in fact rhetorical and you were actually saying “Oh, come on, what’s a bit of ribbing between friends?”, you should realise that a bit of ribbing between friends can easily cross over into something nastier. And it’s easy to turn a blind eye to it or laugh it off when you’re the one doing the “ribbing”. This also brings me back to my point about not being “between friends” but in a public forum and how acceptability is about context.

    If you still think I’ve misrepresented you or not engaged with what you have written properly, I would be grateful if you could rephrase your argument, and I will endeavour to respond to the best of my ability.

    B


    • Actually, dear, racism is not:

      “x is racist if x propagates the belief that one race is inherently superior to another race and consequently fosters hateful and discriminatory attitudes towards that race.”

      Racism can fall into two categories: prejudice and discrimination. In this case, prejudice means thinking disparagingly of someone because of their race. Discrimination is acting in a negative manner towards someone because of their race.

      Now, I’ll come out and say it – I haven’t seen this play. However, do let’s get our definitions right.

      • Bennyboo Says:

        Fair enough, I stand corrected. But my point that whe whiteface acting is not racist still stands: it is neither the expression of a prejudice against white people, nor is it discriminatory against white people.

        Go see the play – it’s good.

    • Ian Shuttleworth Says:

      “you do not challenge my definition of racism” – did not, on that occasion. One of the things one learns as a critic is that it’s impossible to say everything at once.

      “and thus of inspiring hatred / suspicion of / discrimination against white people” – inspiring doesn’t need to enter into it: is *is* discriminatory in itself, in that its portrayal of white characters is not of a piece with that of black ones.

      “Do you really think that’s what the production was trying to convey by using this theatrical device?” – I thought yours was the position in which effects can exist regardless of intention; that certainly seems to be the basis on which you condemn the Whingers’ review.

      “Please, please tell me that you’re not seriously drawing a comparison between blackface acting and the whiting up used in the current production at the National” – absolutely I am, and asking for an explanation as to why such an equation isn’t valid, and no-one, yourself included, has yet furnished one. What you don’t seem to be grasping is my distinction between the technique of portrayal, which is racist, and the use to which it is put, which is not.

      “for a man who complains about the unsound drawing of analogies, you’re certainly coming up with some pretty dubious ones yourself” – and I’m still awaiting any actual explanation of this, as opposed to mere assertion.

      “this is my point when I say that a racist statement is not necessarily an offensive statement” – oh, I thought it was mine, when I used almost exactly those words in my FT review.

      “attitudes which objectify, vilify, reduce to a sterotype, etc. do inhere in material” – how can they, if they are not understood or considered to do so by those perceiving the material? *No* meaning inheres in *any* linguistic construct: *any* message is an interaction between the encoder, the code and the decoder, and I don’t think it’s a solipsistic position to recognise that no such process is ever 100% accurate at every stage.

      “I do not object because I am taking offence on the part of others, but because I believe that there are certain ways of speaking about people which are not acceptable because they objectify, vilify, perpetuate stereotypes, etc.” – and why do you believe tat such ways are not acceptable on those grounds? Forgive me if I presume to answer for you: because you believe that such objectification, vilification etc is a bad thing. And for the avoidance of doubt, I agree; but unless we take John Donne’s position that “any man’s death [ / objectification / vilification / etc ] diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind” (and I’m not saying that position is untenable or impossible, just that it’s very, very difficult to take in all sincerity), then what we are doing is arrogating our own moral codes and applying them to third parties, i.e. claiming for ourselves the right to speak for others.

      “If your argument were allowed to stand” – well, if it were allowed to stand without the understanding that I said “often” rather than “always”, and said so because I meant often rather than always. As it happens, I think that the case in point is one instance where it does apply.

      “I took you to be seriously asking about why I thought the review had attained a degree of insensitivity which was unacceptable” – I am. Are you asking yourself with similar seriousness and dispassion?

      “a bit of ribbing between friends can easily cross over into something nastier” – yes, it can. And sometimes it doesn’t. The whiteface acting doesn’t, even though it’s undertaken in a mentality that reduces an entire grouping to one characteristic and then guys that characteristic – which seems to *me* to be a reasonable definition of racism.

      “acceptability is about context” – in all honesty, I agree with you that context is a significant element, but I disagree that it’s the principal determinant. And so, let’s be honest, do you, otherwise you wouldn’t be straining at the gnat of this review read by a few whilst swallowing the camel of whiteface portrayals in a National Theatre playing to thousands.

      • Bennyboo Says:

        “*No* meaning inheres in *any* linguistic construct: *any* message is an interaction between the encoder, the code and the decoder, and I don’t think it’s a solipsistic position to recognise that no such process is ever 100% accurate at every stage” – this seems to me to be at the root of our disagreement, so I’ll start here.

        Of course no meaning inheres in a linguistic construct which exists in a vacuum, but is does in a linguistic construct which is part of a language used by a community of speakers (as is the case for any sentence in English). Your encoder – code – decoder model presupposes a shared language (“language” in the widest possible sense) which determines the meaning, otherwise the encoder and decoder have no point of reference to ensure that they are communicating properly. Any message is an interaction between encoder, code and decoder, if you wish to put it that way, but that is not to say that the meaning is fixed by the encoder and the decoder. Meaning derives from the practices established by the community of speakers, and communication depends on a shared familiarity with those practices.

        You state that the process is never 100% accurate. This depends largely on what you want to get out of the process / what the process is being used for. One would hope that in scientific / mathematical language, the meaning of a statement were sufficiently well-determined that the possibility of misunderstanding is practically zero. Likewise, in everyday language, although communication does fail on occasion, most of the time it works pretty well. Thus, if my housemate asks me to pick up some beers on my way home and I arrive in the kitchen laden with several cans of Grolsch, it appears that I have grasped his meaning. If I arrive bearing Strongbow, however, we will deem that communication has failed. In view of this, it is perhaps more useful to think of communication being “successful” or not rather than “accurate”.

        Artistic language (and in this case, theatrical language), however, is more open to interpretation / debate. That is not to say that it is completely up to artist and audience to fix the meaning of what is being communicated. The language of theatre must be understood in the wider context of the community of speakers that are presenting the work in question and that of those who are in the audience. It must also be understood in the context of theatrical the conventions and practices which have preceded it and of conventions which the production itself sets up. Such is the case with the whiteface acting in Death and the King’s Horseman.

        Historically, blackface has been used as a means of portraying black men in a stereotypical and degrading way by picking out their perceived characteristics and making them ridiculous. The whiteface does not convey any kind of message about white people in general, but is rather a device which allows the audience to distance themselves from the characters in order to better explore the play of ideas and issues put forward – alienation, if you will (as Billington writes in his review).

        You write that the “technique of portrayal” is racist (incidentally, seeming to imply that meaning can inhere in a linguistic construct) whilst the “use to which it is put” is not. A technique of portrayal cannot be anything before it is “put to use” – this is how it acquires meaning. And the “use to which it is put” can only be assessed in the context of the wider uses and practices of the aforementioned community of speakers.

        Now for my motives. Speaking up for a group which is being discriminated against need not be condescending and appropriative any more than it need be because one is “involved in Mankind”. It is now considered unacceptable to talk about groups of people in certain ways (with the advent of “political correctness”, although the meaning of this term has been distorted by the right-wing media). Since this has happened the quality of life of the millions of people against whom those ways of speaking were directed has improved vastly – they are no longer verbally abused (as much) because of skin colour / gender / sexuality / whatever. This is a Good Thing. It’s as simple as that.

        Apologies if I used a similar turn of phrase to the one you used in your review – it was completely by chance, I don’t read the FT. And sorry for going on without really picking up on any of the specifics of what you wrote above. The idea was that if I developed my point about language far enough, it would encompass pretty much all the stuff you mentioned.

      • DeccaQ Says:

        Bennyboo

        I’m assuming that in the play they used whiteface because it was a reenactment and the characters were white… like a I played Hamlet when I was at an all-girls school.

        But it’s a bit daft to say whiteface says nothing about white people. It’s not a distancing device – they’re playing real people and so whatever those people are like – that’s what the whiteface will be saying (from the reviews I’d guess they’re saying white people – well colonialists, to be fair – are snobbish and insensitive).

        Also – blackface started off the same way all vaudeville acts start – a performer created a character – in this case Jim Crow – it became popular and it was copied. It wasn’t about demeaning and stereotyping black men – but it existed in a unequal, racist society and it was used by both racists and abolitionists to make their points (see the first scene of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and ended up being the colloquial term for the South’s segregation laws. Which is too much baggage for any light entertainment to carry & still be fun.

        In Britain – it was part of an argument about black and Asian people not getting jobs (which I agree with) – plus it looks terrible on T.V. – and the accents were horrific… and it was naff and out-of-date and rubbish.
        But it’s not inherently racist the way some hand-wringers make out (they tried to outlaw the drag queens too – but since they were still entertaining, they failed).


  21. Andrew and Phil
    You have STILL not sent me your bank account details. This is a final warning. John

  22. Ndabaningi Sithole de Jongh Says:

    @ Shuttleworth : if they’re going to make condescension illegal, you’ll never succeed me at the Standard

  23. pb Says:

    Blimey. I saw this review last week and found it vaguely useful: WEW don’t like it very much. I know that my attention span is almost as short as theirs’ (not really sure where that apostrophe should go… any ideas?), and so I probably won’t like it. I didn’t read it and think that WEW are hereby passing judgment on every Nigerian play, person and thing ever. They just didn’t like this play. Of course if that’s what you disagree with, then just say that instead…

    • Jonathan Melia Says:

      No apostrophe at all on “theirs”, pb. You’re confusing it with “there’s”, an abbreviation of “there is”. “Theirs” works in the same way as “his” and “hers”. NO APOSTROPHE. I’m always telling my pupils about this one….

  24. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    I don’t think that enjoying this review is endorsing the denigration of all Nigerians, andy more than I think that liking “Bedtime For Bonzo” endorses Reaganomics. For the avoidance of doubt, I have 40 (I just counted ‘em) Fela Kuti albums…

  25. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    “If you’re a comic you’re bound to offend someone at some point. Comedy is all about exaggeration and distortion, you can’t have comedy that is fair and balanced and accurate. [...] I mean, you can’t have an accurate joke. The whole point of a joke is something that’s illogical, or a lie, or stupid.”

    –Armando Iannucci, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/apr/13/armando-iannucci-interview-decca-aitkenhead

  26. Carux Says:

    This “review” tries to be very cunning: it attempts to obscure the fact it is the real scam by stereotyping everyone from Nigeria as scammers. To perceptive reader though, this intended deception could not be more transparent. It is obvious that this “review” is not even a review, just a mere simulacrum of one. Perhaps, it is high time West End Whingers changed their name to West End Scammers.

    Proper reviews justify their assertions with details from the work being assessed: this sloppy write-up sees no virtue in subscribing to such a strategy. There is no denying the fact that the write-up fails to provide any significant information about the performance it claims to be reviewing, a point earlier noted by wilhelmscream27. The only thing the piece succeeds in accomplishing is the revelation of its irredeemable hollowness.

    On first impression, the internet scam letter concept of the piece may seem exceptional, but one only needs to read a few lines of the write-up to see that the use of the concept is just exceptionally crass. There is nothing intrinsic to the performance or to the history of its production at the National which vindicates the use of the concept. The author(s) of the piece could as well have stayed home and used the concept to review any play with its provenance in Nigeria, and I won’t be surprised if that was what really happened. Those who have accused the write-up of racist and xenophobic bias could well be justified but I will hesitate to go that far. What is undeniable though is that, by using such a controversial concept without backing it up with evidential substance, the authors have provided us a perfect testament to their tasteless witlessness.

    • Ian Shuttleworth Says:

      I still can’t decide whether or not *this* is also a parody.


    • The Whingers are neither tasteless not witless. They are not paid reviewers. My chiding was merely a friendly poke back in the direction they came from (acerbic reviews citing every single thing they hated about the production). This review may be rather hollow, but do be fair. See it in the context of the whole blog as a mistake and let it go, eh?

  27. Carux Says:

    The West End Scammers wrote this in their piece: “Based on the reason that nobody has come forward to show any interest in the play…” The play was mentioned in the citation with which Wole Soyinka was awarded the imperfect, but still prestigious, Nobel prize. Well, because the Swedish Academy is not based in London the West End Scammers have concluded that its members are nobodies. Ditto for all those who have encountered the play outside London. How smart!

    Like a clueless zombie, Arch Proscenium shares in a similar sentiment by writing: “There might well be a reason why this play hasn’t been staged in London before. Any suggestions anyone?” My suggestion is that because of theatres and spectators as clueless and as parochial as Arch Proscenium, only very few plays from outside the West will logically get performed in London. And, by the way, the fact that a play is not frequently performed is no indicator of its quality. For decades Ramón del Valle-Inclán’s works were not staged in Spain, not talk of in any other country, but now he is seen by many as the most adventurous and important Spanish playwright of the 20th century. Same for many other playwrights.

    Helen Smith’s comments are riddled with so many red herrings, ad hominems, and other sundry fallacies that responding to such confused ranting will be dignifying it. The appropriate response to drivel is silence.

    If the West End Scammers are still desirous of maintaining credibility, let them take this advice: go and watch the play (I mean: really watch it) and do a proper review of the performance. The deployment of flashy concepts that lack substance can only lead to tawdriness and bigotry. Hopefully, visitors to this site will have the chance to read your first credible review of the play soon, if you have sufficient humility to recognize your ineptitude.

  28. james hewlett Says:

    And I, Sir, wash my hands of you washing your hands …

  29. Graham Says:

    We shall have fog by tea time.

  30. Baz B Says:

    The promblem is Poms don’t wash their hands.

  31. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Hang on isn’t Baz B being a little “culturally insensitive”?

  32. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    “Of course no meaning inheres in a linguistic construct which exists in a vacuum, but is does in a linguistic construct which is part of a language used by a community of speakers (as is the case for any sentence in English)” – then it’s not inhering, is it?, it’s invested by that context. And that context, though shared, is still subject to individual nuances whether of intention, misunderstanding, personal conditioning, whatever.

    “Your encoder – code – decoder model presupposes a shared language (“language” in the widest possible sense) which determines the meaning” – well, no: it presupposes a shared language in which meaning *can* and often will be found, but it certainly does *not* determine the meaning, in the sense of fixing its limits. Ultimately, any message’s interpretation is contingent upon the interpretative structures, whims etc of the interpreter… the receiver… the reader. Thus, here, you can declare that the Whingers’ review “is” what you say it is, but without any necessary justification either in an objective sense or a consensual-subjective one.

    “Meaning derives from the practices established by the community of speakers, and communication depends on a shared familiarity with those practices” – in theory. In practice, it derives from the interpretation of the decoder. This may, to a greater or lesser extent, be grounded in those practices and that familiarity, but it also may not. The meaning of The Beatles’ White Album was not to go out and kill Sharon Tate, but that’s how Charlie Manson decoded it.

    “You state that the process is never 100% accurate. This depends largely on what you want to get out of the process / what the process is being used for” – it seems to me, rather, to be a truism.

    “One would hope that in scientific / mathematical language, the meaning of a statement were sufficiently well-determined that the possibility of misunderstanding is practically zero” – one would, but here as elsewhere meaning is subject to convention. i commend to you the geometries of Buckminster Fuller, and Ramanujan’s early proof that the additive sum of 1+2+3+…infinity is minus one-twelfth.

    “most of the time it works pretty well” – when applied to concrete, real items. It’s easier to pick up a six-pack of Grolsch than a six-pack of racism.

    “The language of theatre must be understood in the wider context of the community of speakers that are presenting the work in question and that of those who are in the audience” – this “must” strikes me as hortative/normative rather than descriptive.

    “The whiteface does not convey any kind of message about white people in general” – this, too, is assertion. As far as I can see, it conveys as much information about white people as blackface does about black people: namely, that that colour is for immediate purposes the salient characteristic, and that other characteristics such as temperament, intelligence etc, are in some way related to that characteristic.

    “…is rather a device which allows the audience to distance themselves [...] (as Billington writes in his review)” – and as I wrote in mine (I don’t blame you for not shelling out £2 a day, I wouldn’t myself, but it’s also available online), except that I maintain it is not “rather” but “additionally”.

    “You write that the “technique of portrayal” is racist (incidentally, seeming to imply that meaning can inhere in a linguistic construct) whilst the “use to which it is put” is not. A technique of portrayal cannot be anything before it is “put to use” – this is how it acquires meaning” – fair cop, I used the “is” of identity; I should take more care to write in E-Prime on such subjects. Nor do I agree that technique acquires meaning only in use, or at least only in immediate usage, since that would seem to me to rule out parody, caricature and the like, which are not techniques in themselves but effects which rely on a disjunction between image-as-perceived (a function of the technique of portrayal) and image-as-understood (a function of additional conventions which subvert those prior to it).

    “the “use to which it is put” can only be assessed in the context [...]” – again, this seems to me to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. One *can* assess it in anyway one chooses; you seem to be implicitly setting up structures of correctness of interpretation, and regulating for modes of thought always strikes me as a rash undertaking.

    “Since this has happened the quality of life of the millions of people against whom those ways of speaking were directed has improved vastly” – post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy.

    To be continued at http://www.open.ac.uk :-)


  33. “Don’t “people” have *jobs* to go to / to do?”

  34. abragante Says:

    Ian,
    I imagine that you would agree that a critic should first and foremost communicate his/her reactions to his/her audience.

    This is a public forum.

    How on earth do you justify your obscurantism in your recent posts? Or is this an exercise in alienation?

    You may have seen that whatsonstage are advertising for suckers – sorry aspirant critics. Do you plan to apply? And if so, may we look forward to a Roland Barthes – style discourse on a regular basis? Theatre may be moribund, but there’s no need to kill off what enthusiasm remains, just yet. Frankly, having read all this, I’ve certainly lost the will to live.

  35. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    I absolutely agree as regards the purpose of journalistic criticism. What on earth makes you think that the comments here are by way of that? If you want that, you can for instance see my review at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6e6f67c4-27c1-11de-9b77-00144feabdc0.html?nclick_check=1 (and the fact that the FT have been paying me for 15 years or so is one fairly hefty reason why I won’t be applying for one of Whatsonstage’s unpaid gigs – I have every confidence that approach will work as well for them as it did for Plays & Players magazine).

    “Obscure” isn’t the same as “obscurantist”; if I wanted to hide what I was saying, I wouldn’t say it, or wouldn’t say it here. I happen to have an inquiring mind and to apply it to some things that cross my path.

    The fact that something takes place in public doesn’t mean that it’s obliged to be accessible to any and everyone who might chance upon it. Or, more succinctly, you can’t expect me to do the understanding for you.

    Now, to return to the main point, and a couple of things I’d overlooked:

    There’s an assumption that things can be contextualised only by other things sufficiently akin to themselves. Difference can also be an agent of context. I’d argue that in this case, it is: that whiteface is contextualised by blackface.

    Moreover, I’m disappointed to see that once again I’ve so readily moved on to the back foot of defending my own position when no corresponding defence is undertaken by my interlocutor. To take up context again, there is for instance no context whereby references to the 419 scam are taken as metonymic references to all Nigerians. The onus isn’t on rebuttal evidence that the Whingers’ review isn’t racist; the case has yet to be made that it is – it’s simply been asserted.

    But yes, time for bed, said Zebedee.

  36. Lavretsky Says:

    Never mind whiteface.

    Send for the men in the white coats.

  37. Bennyboo Says:

    @ DeccaQ

    When you write “I’m assuming that in the play they used whiteface because it was a reenactment and the characters were white” are you assuming because you haven’t seen the production or because this is a guess you’re hazarding about the director’s intentions? If it’s the former, I’ll be happy to chat once you have seen the show – I don’t really have time to be trying to convince poeople whose arguments are based on speculation. If you have seen it, I’ll go into more detail.

    @ Ian

    A bit pressed for time, but:

    “Ultimately, any message’s interpretation is contingent upon the interpretative structures, whims etc of the interpreter… the receiver… the reader” – the interpretation is, yes, not the meaning. As you later suggest with your Manson example, it is perfectly possible to interpret something wrongly (ie. misunderstand it). The very possiblilty of having a “right” and a “wrong” interpretation depends on meaning deriving from a shared language. I grant that “determined” was too strong a word as meaning need not always be immovably fixed.

    There was going to be more, but it was cut short by a fire drill and now I have to run. My general criticism is that you make a false distinction between image as perceived and image as understood. Not sure I get the “is” of identity either. It looks like predication to me…

    More anon.

    • DeccaQ Says:

      Bennyboo

      That’s a terrible way of sneaking out of an debate you were bound to lose. :p

      • DeccaQ Says:

        Bennyboo

        In defence of Ian.

        Way back you seemed incredulous that anyway would imply that black people were superior to white – but we did have a lecturer at Uni who said ethnic minorities (and women – so I didn’t disagree… :) ) were morally superior… which is the kind of comment that slippery slopes are made of…

        But I admit – I haven’t seen the play – I was merely defending the Whingers parody of an email scam…

        I’ll trot back to DigitalSpy and chat about Hollyoaks…

      • DeccaQ Says:

        Obviously Uni didn’t teach me anything about grammar, spelling or proof-reading. Right on!

  38. Abragante Says:

    “Fire drill”‘eh? I deduce that high level debate on this forum has replaced Solitaire as a way of passing the working day.

  39. Lavretsky Says:

    Might it be appropriate to restrict the length of posts on this site?

    At least six of the posts above are far longer than the original brilliant review.

    750 words to comment on a 450 word review seems excessive at least – onanistic,recondite and tiresome more like.


  40. I don’t think it’s our site any more actually.

    • Ms M Maigret Says:

      Yep – lot of pontificating and one-up-man ship here. Andrew and Phil funny and witty as ever, but wrong about this play. Jenny Jules and Claire Benjamin brillian and although many inthe audience (and readers here, clearly)seem to think that that play is reducible to ‘black people good, white people bad’ it is obviously so much more than that. Soyinka is not telling us to view Nigerian pre-colonial culture uncritically – viz. the references to feudalism and the treatment of women – the relationship of the colonialist ‘master’ and his wife and depicted as much more humane than the treatment of women as being purely there to sate male lust and be babymakers. Go see – very powerful and a huge relief after the mind-numbing abortion that was August: Osage County.

  41. DaveSplendour Says:

    Dear Mr Whingers,

    I think you might need to change your filter. Your comments box appears to be filled with spam.

    And deffo don’t click on Shuttleworth’s link, it doesn’t take you to a review at all. It’s just full of pornos nearly as specialist interest as his metonymic references.

  42. Ndabaningi Sithole de Jongh Says:

    Metonymy is Shuttleworth’s forte.

    His scattering of sememes is positively onanistic.

  43. shewithheofonstagexanadu Says:

    not enough drumming

  44. temi Says:

    I wonder why comments about this post cannot just focus on the play its meant to be about without dragging 419 scam and other Nigerian issues into it.

  45. Chris Says:

    This is exactly why I can’t stand the English. Especially the younger ones for they are more dangerous than their older more methodic racist parents.like it or not, this board reeks of racist, uninformed comments. Drums to africa, is like your damed bag pipes. Even more important than that , for it carries the secrets of Africa with its sounds. At least your cunning parents bothered to understand the culture and then preyed on our generosity. You can’t try this shit in America, this under current Racism disguised as free will and a good laugh. Europeans should understand this, your time in this world has come and gone. Your essence from God was to be sadistic and enslave the whole world at one point. Your job is complete as it were and other cultures will now emerge to take their places. So stop the madness, evaluate the play for your taste and fuck all the racist comments

  46. Not racist or ageist honestly Says:

    I agree.
    I can’t stand English people either. Especially the younger ones.

  47. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Nor me.

  48. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    But isn’t saying “people X are racist” a bit, y’know…?

  49. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Or do we fundamentally share the same subconscious perspective on such matters,that it doesn’t count when it’s us or people we agree with doing it?

  50. Lavretsky Says:

    Ugh – Oh.

    He’s back – having conversations with himself in the middle of a beautiful afternoon.


  51. [...] the scripts themselves. And, as we see frequently from the West End Whingers, blogs can also be hugely inventive formally. Additionally, of course, bloggers are not confined by any house style or editorial line. If you [...]


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