theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
David Edgar’s docudrama about immigration in the UK has been compared to Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. Discounting the fact that both plays employ a kind of ‘collage’ effect, and that both focus on specific goals (getting into Oxbridge / achieving UK citizenship), the comparison is rather generous. Testing The Echo has none of the emotional depth of Bennett’s piece, nor is it half as witty or observant.
Edgar’s storylines – when they eventually emerge – concern a young junkie who is kidnapped by an Islamic extremist (who in time rehabilitates him), a young woman who is seeking refuge from her oppressive common-law husband, and a smattering of entwined storylines about a middle-class British teacher and her English Language class. The latter serves as the driving narrative through which Edgar explores the thorny issue of religion versus freedom of speech.
The production is best described as a multi-media experience, which often feels worryingly close to a sixth form lecture. The absurdity of the British Citizenship test is nicely illustrated (“How many British marriages end in divorce?” “How do you feel about men holding hands?”) But Edgar places too much emphasis on information and his Trivial Pursuit-style questions take up a great deal of the running time.
Despite this, the play’s point about subjective history is valid. History is not – as we might assume – cast in stone; rather it is moulded and manipulated by every generation to suit its needs. Who is to say under what circumstances Scotland became part of the UK? It’s a question which could be tackled a hundred different ways, and it would be moronic to assume that any UK-dweller could accurately answer it – let alone a foreigner. This perhaps provides the last comparison to The History Boys, which attempts to untangle our complex attitudes towards our past and heritage.
Out Of Joint do a good job of animating the material, and share the roles among eight actors of varying ability. Overall, the women are stronger, particularly Farzana Dua Elahe, who plays a petulant child and Kosovan prostitute respectively. Sirine Saba is chilling as religious fundamentalist Nasim, who seems hell-bent on destroying left-leaning tutor Emma (Teresa Banham). But Emma’s war does not end in the classroom as she is forced to justify her political position at a dinner party.
The male relationships are less convincing. Mahmood (Syrus Lowe) is a coke addict who is saved by Muslim extremist Jamil (Sushil Chudasama). Mahmood later returns the favour by effectively ‘saving’ Jamil, reminding him of the true meaning of his religion. While this is a nicely cyclical turn of events (we can see what Edgar’s trying to say) it’s also contrived. Chudasama gives an overblown performance, and the relationship between the two men never really blossoms.
Edgar’s biggest folly – echoing fellow heavyweight David Hare – is in failing to dramatize his extensive research. Pernickety facts take the place of conflict, and verbatim interviews replace plot. Had Edgar chosen to hone in on one of his more successful plotlines (the Emma/Nasim relationship has echoes of Oleanna) he could have created something special. Instead, we’re left with a watchable but unremarkable issue play.
Harriet Davis © 2008
Originally published on R&V 09-04-08
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