A brave new play deals with freedom of speech in complex and interesting ways
Those of us given to complaining about the lack of good new political plays, and the lack of plays that are not predictably left-wing, will now have to stop, if only for a while. The Royal Court, home to everything that is bien-pensant and right-on, has, rather surprisingly, given a world première to a new political play – Christopher Shinn’s Now or Later – which is unusually independent in spirit. To many theatre-goers it must seem far from predictably left-wing, and possibly rather predictably right-wing. It is also very good, with a central performance by Eddie Redmayne that is absolutely exceptional. One should see the play for that alone; without him it might not have been so convincing.
Now or Later is set on the eve of victory of an American Democratic presidential candidate. It’s confined physically to the hotel room of his gay son John (Eddie Redmayne), who is a student at an Ivy League university, and to a set that is about as minimal as a cheap TV studio drama. That is what the playwright wanted; he recommended in the text of the play “a Spartan design in all areas”, and he certainly got it. Perhaps that’s just as well, as the play is verbally very demanding; designerish flourishes might have been distracting.
The central question of the drama is whether John can be persuaded, against his judgment and feelings, to apologise for a recent prank at a campus “naked party”. Behind the prank lies his disgust at what he sees as the decadence around him – college rich kids who attack everything American, yet refuse to criticise other cultures, who tearfully sympathise with oppression of Muslims in the form of some cartoon on campus and refuse to defend freedom of speech; most absurdly with college feminists who are silent about the oppression of women by Muslims but actually go to a free-for-all orgy. So John goes as well, to stage a drunken little protest; he arrives wearing a turban and a T-shirt marked Muhammad, with his friend Matt dressed as a fundamentalist Christian evangelical. As a gay man, John has particular reason to hate radical Islam for its homophobia and its repression of human rights. Someone has posted a few blurry photos of this on the internet but John feels they cannot matter much.
His father’s election team – an invisible but menacing presence on the floor above – thinks very differently and sends people in and out of John’s room, including his mother and finally his father, to manipulate him into publicly apologising. The final crisis of the play begins when something worse emerges: someone has now posted video footage on the internet of something alcohol had wiped from John’s memory of the party – the simulated gay sex act that “Muhammad” performed on “Pastor Bob”.
It was very brave of Shinn, and intellectually honest, to write a play defending freedom of expression in such extreme circumstances. There could hardly be a harsher test case. It is more than likely that there would be international outrage and rioting, if the president’s son were to insult the prophet so grossly in Muslim eyes, quite apart from the damage to America’s standing in the world and of course to his father’s brilliant career. Yet John’s arguments are almost unanswerable.
What makes them particularly plausible is that John is not conventionally, thoughtlessly anti-Muslim – rather the reverse. He hates the war in Iraq, he passionately supports Palestinian rights. He is also cynical about American interventionism; his criticism of Islam is little different from his criticism of Christian fundamentalism. Yet he is quite clear. Early in the play, he explains to the nicest of the political aides that he totally agrees that “the Muslim world has grievances against the West that are valid – not just valid but correct, a lot of them… I’m just saying those grievances are not the whole story, Islam has hatred and intolerance in it that have nothing to do with Western oppression. It makes an apology a lot more complex because they can interpret my apology as an acknowledgement that their value system is legitimate – and if I submit to it then I am betraying all those who are oppressed by that system.”
When the aide argues that he should compromise, “try to see things their way a little”, and respect that their culture is different from his, he replies: “At a certain level there really is just one standard, whatever the cultural differences.” His father, hurrying to his triumph, talks of “a new era of respect” for the Islamic world, and beginning “the work of finding common ground”. But, says John, “I don’t think we should give up our values to find common ground. Then it’s not common ground, it’s their ground and we’re just standing on it.”
The development of the various arguments is much more complex, and dense, than this outline suggests. At an early moment, when I felt the play might be becoming irritatingly cerebral and Shavian, I began to wonder why we needed the reiteration of these ideas; they are to be heard round the clock on all the news media. But in fact they are very rarely heard or read with such clarity or at such length as this, and it does seem that there is an appetite for something more than the usual media offerings – hence the surprising success of public debates recently.
In any case, this play is full of feeling; the emotional tension develops very powerfully together with the political. In this Shinn has succeeded where others usually fail. David Hare’s Iraq play, Stuff Happens, for instance, never rose above the level of an A-level history lesson. But Now or Later tugs at the audience’s feelings just as insistently as at their ideas, pulling both in different directions. It is Eddie Redmayne who is very largely responsible for the emotional impact of this play. The other actors are all good, but their roles are rather more schematic than the part of John and they lack the dramatic authority and control that Redmayne possesses, despite his youth.
This play is about much more than political questions; it has a lot to do with young manhood and the gaining of independence as well as wisdom. Redmayne moves swiftly from the posture and gestures of a brave and confident young man to an anxious teenager, to a desolate child, and back. His command of rhythm and diction – complicated political stuff and in an American accent, too – is as remarkable as his body language. He has an extraordinarily economical way of looking not just bereft or betrayed but half-blind with emotion, in a way that his understatement makes more touching. It’s hard to avoid thinking of Hamlet, and there are some obvious parallels, including a sexually incontinent First Lady mother. The printed edition opens with a truncated quotation from Hamlet: “Be bloody or be nothing.” What Hamlet says in full is: “My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.” Both versions are chilling undercurrents in the play’s theme. Thoughts, when expressed, are becoming deeds in the contemporary world, and are thus at risk of being controlled. A surprising and outstanding play. It runs until 1 November.