National's Hytner says no censorship

By Marcus Dysch, February 19, 2009
Defensive: the National Theatre’s Nick Hytner (Photo: John Rifkin)

Defensive: the National Theatre’s Nick Hytner (Photo: John Rifkin)

The director of the National Theatre has defended two plays which have drawn criticism for perceived antisemitic and racist undertones.

Nicholas Hytner said it was not the theatre’s role to censor the views of playwrights, and denied that flyers for one of the plays had accused Israel of “atrocities” during last month’s conflict in Gaza.

Burnt by the Sun is set in 1936 Soviet Russia ahead of Stalin’s great purges and follows a Red Army veteran’s life at his dacha outside Moscow.

In its advertising leaflets, the playwright, Bafta-award winning Peter Flannery, asks: “What is the connection between [John Milton’s] Samson’s story, the current atrocities in Palestine, and Burnt by the Sun? Terror is the connection.”

The play opens on March 2 and the flyers were last week sent to the National’s entire mailing list, leading to complaints to Mr Hytner and the Board of Deputies.

One said: “I was appalled to read this statement. The use of the word ‘atrocities’ is damning and unfounded. This is a theatre which has many Jewish subscribers, issuing a strong political statement about current events in its literature with no place for a response.”

Replying to another complainant, Mr Hytner, who is Jewish, said: “The marketing material gives Peter Flannery space to make connections which are plainly his alone. I don’t think that the National should be in the business of censoring the views of those who write for it, and in any event I’m sure that there is not a single recipient of our advertising whose political views could be influenced by it in any way.”

He added that he “didn’t know” whether he agreed with the Gaza references and said it was not clear who Mr Flannery blamed for the conflict.

The second play, England People Very Nice, by Hull-born playwright Richard Bean, charts five centuries of race, religion and immigration in the East End of London.

It features Jewish anarchists and revolutionaries who picket a synagogue on Yom Kippur while eating ham sandwiches.

Running until April 30, the play looks at the lives of Protestant Huguenots, Catholic Irish and Muslim Bangladeshis.

Critics have compared its stereotypes to the jokes of Bernard Manning and questioned whether the play could be perceived as racist, although others have likened it more to the farcical nature of Carry On films.

Mr Hytner is directing the play and said: “It lampoons all forms of stereotyping: it is a boisterous satire of stereotypes of French, Irish, Jews, Bangladeshis, white East End Cockneys, Hampstead liberals and many others.

“Every stereotype is placed in the context of its opposite and it clearly sets out to demonstrate that all forms of racism are equally ridiculous.”

Last updated: 1:15pm, March 10 2009