And they can keep their ‘past is a foreign country’ puns, too…

‘Musicals continue to be the only art form, popular or otherwise, that is publically criticized by illiterates’, wrote Sondheim in Finishing the Hat, by which he meant illiteracy about musical theatre itself. We got to see a little bit of that with the press night of The Go-Between, the most exciting new musical I have seen for years. (In brief: the music is astonishing and has the vocabulary to navigate the psychological nuances of the story, as does a production that plays to every strength of its theatricality, its ensemble cast operating like a beautiful piece of clockwork and accompanied throughout by a single onstage piano which, thanks to the writing and the performance, weaves every colour the score needs whilst retaining an intimacy and intensity that is at the heart of the whole concept. I sat through both acts in what felt like a single breath and it has continued to haunt me since. Go and see it. And take me with you please.)

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Not that I was so naïve as to anticipate that response being reflected in the show’s reviews, and even as I staggered out of the theatre trying not to make a fool of myself by weeping too openly on Shaftesbury Avenue I did wonder how far such subtle craftsmanship would go with a critical community more used to seeing (not to mention working in) broad brushstrokes.

Illiterates? Perhaps. It’s hard not to feel empathy with Sondheim when critics of musical theatre have so little belief in the genre: according to The Londonist ‘musical just isn’t the right genre for intense, psychological narrative’, an idea echoed by the opinion in WhatsOnStage that ‘secrets and subtext would be easier if the cast could talk to each other’ – whilst, reducing this to a special kind of stupid, Official Theatre simply has it that this musical contains ‘too much singing’. In The Times we get ‘this is not so much a musical as a play set to music’, which may be the single silliest sentence I have seen in a theatre review, partly because it implies the absence of a librettist and partly because it ignores the development of the function of musical theatre since about 1943.

But perhaps this is not illiteracy so much as inexperience; all of the above demonstrate a profound underestimation of the genre of musical theatre, even resulting in a need to redefine this piece altogether. On BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, Matt Wolf went the whole hog and called it a chamber opera, though his erudite stance was scuppered by host John Wilson explaining that there were no stand out songs and the whole thing was ‘pointless’ because ‘if you love the book, and the film was fantastic, why take it to the musical stage?’ On those grounds we should give some serious re-evaluation to the likes of such pointless musicals as Oliver!, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, for which there are also perfectly good literary substitutes, not to mention the recent glut of musicals adapted directly from films which are already fantastic.

‘Ah’, John Wilson might respond, ‘but those musicals do have stand-out songs’. His assumption – not an uncommon one – is that the stand-out songs are the point of musicals. Many commercial producers clearly think along those lines with their increasingly desperate attempts to turn some back catalogue into another Mamma Mia, almost as if musical theatre hasn’t moved on since its formative years as a mere glorified revue. But even if that were the case, The Go-Between had been described moments earlier as a chamber opera, and you don’t hear people complaining that The Turn of the Screw is pointless because it doesn’t have stand-out songs and you can read the book.

(Incidentally, both The Turn of the Screw and The Go-Between do have stand-out songs, they’re just rather less heavy-handedly deployed than in, say, We Will Rock You, not least because the composers place storytelling above the audience’s need to clap every few minutes.)

It’s important to point out that not all critics are illiterates, and there have been brilliant and perceptive responses from the likes of Mark Shenton, Edward Seckerson and Libby Purves (perhaps it’s no coincidence that they are largely positive), not to mention from audiences themselves. When I saw the show the now-obligatory standing ovation was genuinely enthusiastic and the audience members who sat in their seats still sobbing as the house lights went up didn’t seem to have had their experience diminished by the shortage of ‘numbers’. It is reassuring that, in spite of the expectations of some critics, music and storytelling are all that’s needed to get that kind of response from West End audiences.

So for all that it has been labelled ‘gentle’, ‘mild-mannered’ and ‘austere’ (it is none of those things, but some critical pulses are evidently conditioned only to respond to heavy synthesisers), The Go-Between lays down a hefty gauntlet. By demonstrating that musical theatre can be sophisticated, even challenging, and still shift seats, it challenges producers to look for ticket sales in quality, not another back catalogue. That way lies a future for the British musical.

Doing things in a more civilised way

So this Labour spat over the decriminalisation (or not) of prostitution: it is tempting, as always, to sigh and say ‘Jeremy Corbyn really doesn’t help himself, does he?’. In this case, though, I’m not sure it’s that way round. After all, he is within his rights to give a personal opinion in response to a question from a member of the public, especially one consistent with his support for Amnesty International’s position on prostitution. (Whether he elaborated on it is unclear, because predictably the press have only reported The Controversial Thing What He Said, but nobody could accuse Amnesty’s stance of being poorly considered.)

As the press gleefully reported, he was immediately attacked by ‘angry female MPs’, every reporter conveniently ignoring all criticism from male MPs to portray this as a straightforward battle of the sexes. Mind you, it wasn’t the media that made it about gender in the first place, was it?

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Enter Jess Phillips, hashtag shedding a tear because Corbyn is a man who ‘says we should decriminalize a known violence against women’. This introduction of gender politics is deeply unhelpful. Even if we accept the genderisation of the discussion itself on the basis that most of the victims of prostitution are women, Corbyn’s gender is irrelevant – it is entirely conceivable that a man (especially this man) can advocate for women’s rights, and in any case the Amnesty view is championed by women and women’s groups alike. To portray Corbyn as a chauvinist with no respect for women’s dignity is pretty low and more than a little disingenuous.

Equally disingenuous, or just plain ignorant, is reacting as though Corbyn doesn’t care about violence against women, portraying him as a champion of the sex trade and confusing decriminalisation with legalisation. The Women’s Equality Party have even put out a statement which insinuates that Corbyn was ‘advocating the sale of bodies for sex’, a hugely reductive leap of non-logic.

The sad thing is that these angry Labour MPs don’t recognise that, on this, they are genuinely all on the same side. Corbyn has aligned himself with a proposal grounded in a desire to protect the vulnerable, and whilst they disagree over the proposed solution, they might at least give Corbyn the credit for raising the discussion and engage in a more sensitive, sophisticated way.

(Oh, and the shadow cabinet member who said Corbyn should ‘go and join the Green party’ can piss right off: this debate is not served by you attaching your political prejudices to it, and since you’re the one taking them anonymously to a right wing newspaper, consider that perhaps you’re the one in the wrong party.)

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Prostitution is an emotive issue, but for that very reason politicians must be wary of letting their emotions cloud their ability to reach objective conclusions, particularly in the absence of a party line. Nobody doubts Harriet Harman’s commitment to women’s rights, but her conflation of abuse with her distaste for prostitution confuses the issue; Corbyn shares her desire to protect women, so her objection to his description of prostitution as ‘an industry’ seems a bit petty when you consider that industry and exploitation are hardly mutually exclusive. Fine, we can stop calling it an industry if you like, but that won’t stop it being one a dictionary definition sense, and it won’t solve any problems.

And whilst it is a legitimate point of view to consider all prostitution exploitative and degrading, however consensual, that is a different discussion. An important discussion, but a more broadly ideological one with opinions (indeed, feminist opinions) on both sides. It would be disastrous to confuse that debate, with all its grey areas, with the clear cut need for legislation that protects the victims of categorical abuse such as coercion, sex trafficking and child prostitution; the so-called Nordic model (decriminalisation of the sellers and criminalisation of the buyer) is an attractive solution to those who are morally opposed to prostitution full stop, but it may not be the solution that best helps the vulnerable (in fact, the Amnesty proposal is supported by 60% of organisations working with sex workers, of which, conversely, only 4% support the Nordic model).

None of which is to say whether Corbyn is right or wrong, it is simply to ask, can you just sit down and talk about this, please? I mean, talk to each other rather than to the Telegraph or the whole of twitter? If you really care about these vulnerable women, men and children, then instead of spoiling for the fight that the media have predictably turned into the main story, acknowledge that you are unified in your beliefs that the current law doesn’t work, that criminalising victims doesn’t help and that you want to do something about it?

You do want to do something about it, right?

You Stupid Boy.

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‘Um, hey. About this headline.’

‘Brilliant, isn’t it!’

‘Well… is it?’

‘Yeah, ’cos it’s like history repeating itself, us against Europe, like in the Second World War!’

‘Well, no, in the Second World War we were trying to save Europe from Nazi occupation.’

‘That’s exactly my point! ’Cos David Cameron, right, is so rubbish at doing it, he’s like in Dad’s Army where they just let the Nazis invade!’

‘I don’t think the Nazis ever did invade, did they? Even in Dad’s Army?’

‘Sure, but they would’ve done if Cameron had been in charge.’

‘Okay. Okay, let’s accept the analogy for the time being. Only… I can’t help noticing you’ve put Cameron’s name where it was originally, er, ‘Hitler’.’

‘Wrong number of syllables, you mean? I was worried about that too. But actually you can make the scansion work, you just have to use semiquavers.’

‘No, no, it’s not that, it’s… in your analogy, I thought Cameron was fighting the Nazis?’

‘Yep. Well, he is, isn’t he?’

‘But Hitler was a Nazi.’

‘Oh. I see your point.’ (pause) ‘I know, let’s put in a picture of David Cameron dressed as Captain Mainwaring, that ought to make it clear!’

Several hours of photoshopping later…

‘Yeah. Yeah, I see your point… he does look a bit like Heinrich Himmler.’ (pause) ‘Never mind, let’s put in a caption explaining who he’s dressed as, that ought to make the whole thing totally clear!’

On the offensive

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Ken Livingstone went on Question Time and offended some people last week, which shouldn’t come as a surprise by now. Not only because he has made build a career on offending people, but because when it comes to discussing terrorism, a lot of people seem to think that blazing moral outrage is the only way of ensuring everyone knows Just How Bad They Think Terrorism Is, as if the biggest danger facing us is that we might accidentally become a nation of apologists.

Take the tremendous knee-jerk reaction to Livingstone saying that the 7/7 terrorists ‘gave their lives’ for their beliefs. ‘WHAT???’ responded a twittersphere of caps lock, punctuation-heavy outrage, ‘they didn’t give THEIR lives, they TOOK OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES!!!’

I pointed out to a couple of people that, the truth of the second bit notwithstanding, it is an indisputable fact that the bombers sacrificed their lives too. Nobody’s trying to glorify it, least of all Livingstone, who as Mayor of London responded to the 7/7 bombings with a speech that was roundly applauded as summing up the mood of the city and the nation, and which incidentally used the exact same phrase without attracting any criticism. And why should it? Giving your life is a requirement for a suicide bomber (the clue’s in the name) and if we’re going to understand terrorism we do actually have to get our heads around that terrorists think they have something worth sacrificing themselves for.

One of the Offended People angrily argued that:

You ‘give your life’ if you put yourself in a position where others might kill you or where you kill yourself, NOT when you set out deliberately to kill others.
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So we’re not in fact arguing about whether they ‘gave their lives’ in a literal sense at all, but about the phrase itself – as if you have to earn it through some romantic notion of noble self-sacrifice. That’s understandable – the phrase has religious connotations and associations with remembrance; Danbury Mint make a bronze sculpture of ‘the Brave British Tommy’ who ‘gave his life’ for King and Country, though ironically he probably gave his life considerably less willingly than your average extremist and in fact was pretty much forced by King and Country to give his life so it might be more accurate to say they took it from him, but that sort of sentiment makes people feel awkward at remembrance services. Still, there’s one damning distinction you can make about the 7/7 suicide bombers – their lives were never taken from them.

Except… in a less literal sense they were. Their lives were taken at the point they were indoctrinated into the twisted worldview that convinced them that these atrocities were justified. To think otherwise is to assume that they were born evil and, by extension, to believe that there is no solution to the problem of terrorism – the ‘shit happens’ explanation. Well, this shit doesn’t just happen, and understanding what drives people to extremism lies at the heart of stopping it from happening. That does actually mean looking at extremists with some awareness of context, which the Sun will label ‘sympathy for jihadis’, but which anyone actually looking to find a long term solution would call learning lessons from history.

That’s a distinction that eluded Matt Forde on Question Time. Ken Livingstone’s view that the 7/7 bombings were a direct consequence of Tony Blair’s actions in Iraq is neither illogical or original, but it got Forde worked up into a state of righteous indignation as he accused Livingstone of trying to ‘absolve’ terrorists, fundamentally failing to recognise that seeking explanations is utterly different to pleading absolution, and apportioning blame to a leader who ignored advice an exacerbated an unstable situation doesn’t in any way lesson the blame that lies with the perpetrators.

Plenty of others want to obliterate the shadow of Western foreign policy from our collective act of finger pointing. The aftermath of the Paris attacks saw shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden saying we shouldn’t see terrorist acts as always being a reaction to what the West do, bizarrely adding that it ‘risks infantilising the terrorists’ when ‘they are adults entirely responsible for what they do’ – as if the fact that the terrorists have a choice not to be terrorists means we can’t possibly consider their motives. Should we be careful not to see Cameron’s proposed bombing campaign as a reaction to the Paris attacks, because it risks infantilising him?

Emma Reynolds MP competed to be even more smugly Completely Appalled By Terrorists And Anyone Who Doesn’t Also Direct Their Full Appalledness At Them when she asked if Cameron agreed that ‘full responsibility for the attacks in Paris lies solely with the terrorists and any attempt by any organisation to somehow blame the West or France’s military intervention in Syria is not only wrong, disgraceful, but also should be condemned?’ earning her that half-pissed sleep talking noise that indicates approval from the Tory benches, even though her tautology-laden question didn’t really have much of a point, except to gently stab the leader of her own party in the back and toady up to David Cameron – who duly replied that the half-pissed sleep talking was an indication of just how right she was, a condescending note of gratitude in his voice.

You bet he was grateful. Nobody stands to gain so much from the outraged objection to ‘any attempt by any organisation to somehow blame the West‘. If his proposed airstrikes in Syria go ahead, it’s an attitude that places him entirely above reproach, whatever the consequences – because even while experts are say bombing will make the situation worse, that airstrikes are playing into the hands of ISIS, and that Cameron’s case for the strikes contains ‘straightforward deceit’, we won’t be allowed to mention any of that if there are repercussions. After a terrorist attack, any such criticism could be shut down as a disgraceful attempt to blame the West, to absolve the terrorists, and to justify their atrocities. So the Prime Minister can do what he likes and blow the consequences, because his critics are all jihadi sympathisers and if a responsible adult becomes an extremist it’s nothing to do with him.

And so the cycle goes on. Cameron blithely talks about ‘learning from the mistakes of Iraq’ without acknowledging any connection between fourteen years of military action in the Middle East and the fact that we’re less secure than ever. When the worst happens, he has a wall of moral outrage to hide behind, the truth that terrorism can never be justified merging with the outright lie that the West can never be blamed.

Unless, perhaps, we’re prepared to offend a few people.

What goes around comes around

David Cameron has already voiced his embarrassment over that Bullingdon club photo. Well, some more photos emerged on Sunday, as well as a story about a thing one person claims photographic evidence also exists for, though if it does it remains mercifully shielded from the public eye. Nevertheless, one imagines there has been more embarrassment in the Cameron household these last couple of days, something the nation has delighted in exploiting with a relentless stream of predictable and mostly not very good pig-based jokes on twitter.

As some have pointed out, we all did stupid things when we were younger (though, I would protest, not that stupid), but the real hypocrisy here is that the story comes from a single uncorroborated and uncertain source in a book written by a disgruntled Tory peer and revealed to the world in the pages of a notoriously capricious ‘news’paper. Essentially, it is revenge porn, albeit in prosaic and most likely fictional form. It’s ironic that Lord Ashcroft’s work is being championed by people who would normally contemplate demeaning pig sex themselves before getting behind the words of either a Tory peer or the Daily Mail.

One person who definitely won’t be talking about ‘hashtag piggate’ is the new leader of the Labour party. Tim Farron couldn’t resist a little dig on twitter (‘I’ve never been more pleased to be a vegetarian’) but Corbyn is still tweeting about railways, and is all set to disappoint those hoping he will ask a crowd sourced pig-based question at PMQs. Because whatever you think of Corbyn, he is making his leadership about real people and real issues, not dubious stories and character attacks. He probably doesn’t give a crap about whether Cameron stuck his thing in a dead pig or not because he’s much more concerned about £4.4bn of tax credit cuts, as heartless an attack on the poor as burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person (something else Cameron did not do at university). Cameron’s alleged porcine student dalliances have no bearing on his ability to do his job, at least compared to How He Is Doing His Job (and since his leadership puts the NHS in jeopardy, threatens to close down the BBC, demonizes the disabled, endangers the environment and continues to pour money into an obsolete defense system before the issue has even been voted on in Parliament, that is very relevant indeed).

This is worth noting because last week we were bombarded with stories about Jeremy Corbyn which, if less visceral than the pig thing, were just as fatuous. Stories about him snubbing England’s Rugby World Cup, or riding a communist bicycle, or having an evil great great grandfather. Only slightly less inane and equally unsubstantiated were stories about his disrespect for servicemen, his sexist shadow cabinet and his love of terrorists, splashed across newspapers as fact and gleefully retweeted by Conservative MPs and supporters ad nauseum. And lest we forget (as if we’re going to be allowed to), the Prime Minister’s first response to the announcement of Labour’s new leader was to brand him a threat to National security, a less specific accusation than the pig thing but as incendiary a claim (Cameron usually reserves such language for talking about ISIS). Is it any wonder that Cameron’s detractors have seized this opportunity to turn the tables? And when such hyperbole are being used by the Tories, who could truly blame Corbyn if started referring to them as a secret pig fucking cabal?

But he won’t. There will be no grainy monochrome scaremongering video from Labour about Cameron and pigs. Corbyn’s questions to the Prime Minister will continue to focus single-mindedly on Conservative policies. It may not be the first time Cameron has been embarrassed about his student days, but it is perhaps not the last time he will have reason to be grateful that Corbyn is a better man than him.

Conservative with the truth

The movie released yesterday by the Tories about Jeremy Corbyn (coming soon to a social networking site near you) has revealed a truth that not even the most fervent left-winger can wriggle away from: Labour’s new leader, however human and principled he managed to appear during the leadership campaign, has pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. He is a frightening figure. He does evil things, thinks evil thoughts, has evil friends and is putting our very lives in jeopardy with every passing second.

That, surely, is the only conclusion any reasonable person can draw from the video. And video is simply not capable of lying, any more than Conservative PR people are. These are FACTS. We see and hear Corbyn incriminated with his own disgusting words – what more proof do we need?

Labour apologists can whinge about ‘context’ all they like, but it’s not as if you could make David Cameron look like this with an hour to spare on Premiere Pro.

Is it?