Interview: Richard Bean

Richard Bean rejects the liberal orthodoxy of the arts. Ahead of his new comedy about immigrants, he tells us why multiculturalism doesn’t work.


By John Nathan, January 29, 2009
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Hull-born Richard Bean is one of the most exciting British playwrights to have emerged over the past decade or so. There may be those who disagree with this statement. But if they do, it is because they believe Bean to be not one of, but without doubt the funniest and most profound British playwright writing today. He also perhaps the only prominent British playwright who is prepared to challenge left-wing orthodoxy. And he has provocative things to say about what he regards as the failed experiment of multiculturalism — the sort of territory normally occupied by commentators like David Aaronovitch and Melanie Phillips.

Bean’s work has been scooped up by the most important new writing venues in London, including the Royal Court and the National. But he has had nothing before on the scale of England People Very Nice. This is his latest play, a sweeping historical comedy that charts five centuries and four waves of race, religion and immigration in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London — the Protestant Huguenots, the Catholic Irish, the Jews and the Muslim Bangladeshis.

It tells a London story that begins in 17th century Spitalfields and ends in a post 9/11 world with second generation immigrants fired up by radical Islam.

Perhaps surprisingly, the story Bean has chosen to tell in the 19th- and 20th-century Jewish section of his epic is not one about Jewish tailors, Yiddish theatre and anti-Mosley riots, but Jewish anarchists and revolutionaries. The elite of Anglo-Jewry are seen looking sceptically at the influx of Yiddish-speaking Jewish refugees from the Pale. “Look at these Luftmensch [people with no skills or income],” says the Chief Rabbi. “Our mission is to turn these Jews into English Jews,” says Rothschild.

Later, the Jewish anarchists are seen stirring up trouble with their own establishment by picketing a synagogue on Yom Kippur while eating ham sandwiches. Bean may be irreverent but the events in his play are rooted in fact. And so are the jokes. The question is whether people will laugh.

“That’s a difficult one ” says Bean, who may have given up a career as a psychologist to write plays but has the look of a man who could take care of himself in a fist fight. And there aren’t many, or any, other playwrights about whom you could say that.

“You know that kind of thing when people go in and say: ‘Do I have permission to laugh?’” continues Bean, who has also worked as a stand-up comedian.

But it is a serious question. After David Hare’s Gethsemane, which was accused of antisemitism, the National’s artistic director Nicholas Hytner said he feels as if he’s “treading on eggshells”.

If there are complaints, they are as likely to be prompted by Bean’s depiction of radicalised Muslims as much as anyone else. But do not expect any political correctness. Bean is the man, after all, whose play satirising suicide bombers was rejected by the Soho Theatre. “I was told it was rejected because they said they couldn’t defend it politically,” he says contemptuously. “If I’d written a pro-Hamas play, no problem.”

So is part of the problem that we have lost our sense of humour in this country? “Agh, you’re telling me,” he answers. “I mean for 15 years we’ve had tolerance and sensitivity training in this country. What this country needs is de-sensitivity training.”

And there is another question: it has only been a couple of years since Hytner, who is directing Bean’s play, told the JC that if he were to ever stage a play that appeared to be critical of an ethnic minority, it would have to be written by a member of that minority. “I’m not a member of any group,” says Bean. “Well, I am. The ‘wet liberal whites’, that’s me. But I consider them [the immigrants in his play] to be English. I’m English, they’re English. If I can’t write about my fellow Englishmen I might as well pack up and go home.”

When this is put to Hytner, he qualifies his point. He says: “I’d be sceptical of a play that purported to come from within a particular ethnic minority — a play that offered a first-hand account of the experience of the community — unless it came from within the community. Sceptical, not terminally hostile. Is Porgy and Bess, for instance, treif? Many African-Americans think it should be. I don’t. Richard’s play doesn’t make those claims. It is, as he says, about the English.”

To this, Hytner is keen add that the cast is at least in part made up of actors of Jewish, Irish and Bengali origin, which adds to the integrity of the production.

But however authentic the portrayal, and however funny the play turns out to be (and the script is very funny indeed) there is detectable in it a deadly serious anger. Anger, for instance, about multiculturalism.

“There are two types of multiculturalism in this country,” says Bean. “There’s the ephemeral — which is music, food, clothing; those kind of things which enriched the culture of this country. And they’re lovely. But then there is the second level of multiculturalism, which personally I don’t want in this country. I want this country to have a clear culture which is based on the rule of law. British law. We are all equal before the law — men, women, homosexuals. And I don’t want to see little cantons set up where — and this is genuine multiculturalism — you can beat your kids or your wife if you come from a culture where corporal punishment is still allowed. Frighteningly, there are now sharia courts set up around the country. There were six guys up for beating their wives, they took the option of going up to the sharia court, which told them that it was really very naughty. To me, that level is multiculturalism is not going to be acceptable.”

It is also an anger based on the treatment of his nine-year-old daughter, who goes to school in Bethnal Green. “Seventy per cent of her class are Bangladeshi and she has no Bangladeshi friends. They don’t want to know her. She doesn’t want to know them. Isn’t that terrible? It’s frightening. That’s just not the way it should be.”

Then the wet liberal shows himself. “I can understand their point of view. Because quite rightly they see our household as being a hotbed of rap, pop and make-up. But it’s still not right. And if you’re a writer, you have to write about the way you see your society functioning.

“Part of what this play is about is, what does it mean to be British? What are British values? To be clear, we’ve got to respect ourselves a little more, and not defer to other cultures which we’ve been doing for 10 years.”

England People Very Nice runs from February 4 at the National Theatre, London SE1 as part the Travelex £10 ticket season. Tel: 020 7452 3000

    Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014