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77

What news of Tychy’s favourite student theatre company, Nottingham New Theatre?

A NNT play submits the most smoothly perfect theatrical product, but as I have commented in the past, this is usually a stylistic rather than a fully aesthetic achievement. If these plays are sometimes openly banal, their banality never fails to come across as profound. It is exciting, therefore, when back today at the Pleasance Zoo, to see one of this year’s two NNT Fringe contributions biting off a mouthful of politics. Jake Leonard’s “18b” is set during World War Two and it picks up the stories of three women who have been interned under the British government’s “Defence Regulation 18b.”

18b allowed any person of “hostile origin or associations,” or any person implicated in “acts prejudicial to the public safety” to be detained without trial. The regulation came into effect at the start of the war and over a thousand people were confined under its provisions by 1940 (including Sir Oswald Mosley). The detentions generally, as far as we can tell, enjoyed some degree of popular approval (though they didn’t really poll people back then).

In Leonard’s play, the state’s minions, Charles Lyon-Johns (Aaron Tej) and William Thompson (Ben Hollands), interrogate two home-grown fascist sympathisers and a German immigrant who is reported to be employed in a sensitive job. We might think that the interrogations are a bit off or not quite cricket. Alternatively, they might strike us as being reassuringly British. The interrogators look rather wretched, their proceedings never diverge from sensible questions and a strained old-world politeness, and nobody has anything prised under their fingernails. You might be on the whole pleased that this bunch had won the war.

But there are strengths and weaknesses to an approach which shows rather than tells. We never learn what was really on the line with these interrogations. In a period when the British state was fighting for its very existence, and people such as this play’s three detainees could have provided invaluable intelligence to Nazi invaders, their liberty was never going to be a priority. Moreover, when compared to New Labour’s recent attempts to suspend habeas corpus for ninety days (permanently and in peacetime) then 18b does not seem notably drastic.

Take away the sound and the resultant tableau of stern men interrogating isolated, well-to-do ladies could come straight from a play about the Suffragette movement. Yet Leonard does not cite some of the more bloodcurdling applications of 18b. As the historian James Heartfield has recently explored, 18b was used to intimidate trade-unionists and leftists. Intimidation was a characteristic element of the war effort; the spurious arrest of a random individual every now and then would help everybody else to conform. In one ludicrous instance, the Edinburgh medium Helen Duncan was imprisoned for revealing state secrets at a séance (although she was convicted under the 1735 Witchcraft Act rather than being punished non-judicially).

We might not get a comprehensive briefing on 18b, but we are still shown a great deal which remains of interest. All of these characters adhere to a sort of shared dignity; they want to help each other and not make a fuss. We acquire a vivid understanding of a highly dramatic subject precisely because it is staged with such minimal drama.

There is also a moment when the dangers of intensifying the state’s power come crashing home. One of the detainees is itching to smoke a cigarette but her interrogators say no. In their world, they are just being petty, denying something very small in order to exhibit their power. In our world, if somebody lit a cigarette on stage, the police would probably turn up and take the audience away in a van. The venue would lose its license; the NNT would be sent home in disgrace. It all makes 18b seem positively quaint.

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