I am England (Theatre Review)
“I used to love England, we all did until those dickheads stole our future.”
Never has a theatre production been timelier and precise than I’m England by Talawa Young People’s Theatre (TYPT.) It responds to recent events in England better than any psychologist or politician can attempt a reasonable explanation. Devised by young Londoners aged 18-25, it explores 25 years of Black British history, from 1986 to 2011, from the arrival of migrants from the Caribbean to the riots which recently saw London go up in flames.
If you remember the famous speech by Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister, which goes along the lines of: “The British character has done so much for democracy…people are rather afraid that this country is rather been swamped with people from other cultures. To have good race relations, you have to deal with the numbers…if there’s any fear that it is been swamped, people are going to be rather hostile….” That hostility has taken on different forms over the years and is no longer relegated to the race narrative.
While there is no set narrative thrown at the audience by I am England, the different subjects: race and racism, police brutality, violence and the complete breakdown of values in society, explored on stage gives you an in-depth insight into the divisive issues at hand from the point of view of young people in society. Don’t be fooled, they are fully aware of what’s going on around them. This was about the issues that plague them in their own voice. They were expressing their pain and frustration at society for misunderstanding them, doing its very best to silence them and classify them all as criminals who carry out acts of ‘pure criminality and thuggery.’
I am England goes straight to the heart of the matter and questions what it means to be English for today’s young people? Like some sections of the older generation, young people are trying to figure out what it means to be part of the fabric of the English society? How do they fit into the bigger picture? When you talk about young people from African and African-Caribbean backgrounds, who are you referring to? The minority, whose behaviour is bad or the majority doing the best they can to make life work? What does it mean to be English when in Brixton, 1,000 people are stopped and searched in five days? What does it mean to be English when you still get comments like “these darkies yeah, I tell you?” What does it mean to be English when you are instantly classified as a gang member for wearing a hooded top or disrespected for wearing a hijab because of your religion?
One very interesting factor about this play is the use of movement. Nadia Iftkhar’s choreography was poignant because it symbolised pain, friction and struggles that exists between young people, society, the political institutions and various apparatus of the laws in the land. The use of historical events that have shaped the landscape of the nation, especially where race is concerned was equally as important. Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh excellent direction demonstrates her ability to interpret the feelings and views of the young people who devised this play. You only wish more of those in power would listen to them the way she has.
Talawa Theatre reminded the audience about their history, questioned them about the present and evoked the need for an urgent dialogue about the future. If I am allowed, I believe I would say I am England is bang on the money because it brings to the fore, the voice of a generation on the state of the nation, and if these voices are continuously ignored, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the disaster that awaits us.
Image: Richard Hubert Smith