Brighton Fringe 2015
Pulling Up The Drawbridge
David Stephens / Something Underground
Venue: Exeter Street Hall Exeter St Brighton BN15PG
The timing of some productions is just perfect.
Doing a production about the inner life of a UKIP supporter, in a month when the General Election was dominated an agenda that was anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-change – anti everything, really – was both clever and pertinent.
For me, the best line came quite near the beginning of the show. George is in his little tent on a cliff-top (we’ll come to that …) and he’s got his Union Jack flag in his hands. He’s grumbling to himself about how it’s become – "Politically Incorrect" – to display the British flag, "The same brigade that want to ban Saint George’s Day – in case it offends anybody"
He’s read in a newspaper – he gets it out of the tent to show us – that the Patron Saint of England is also the patron saint of sixteen other countries. More than that – it seems that Saint George never ever set foot in England … he was a Palestinian, who served in the Roman army.
This is doing George’s head in – "That can’t be right. Somebody would have mentioned that, wouldn’t they? We’d have learned that at school, wouldn’t we? We’ve all seen pictures of Saint George, in that suit of armour, slaying the dragon". George is in his fifties, wearing grey tracksuit bottoms and a grey hoodie. He pulls up the hood now, and jams his steel cooking pot on his head like a Crusader’s helmet, to become Saint George – rolling his Union Jack tightly round its stick and holding it like a lance.
"If he’d been Palestinian, we’d never have heard of him, would we? … Nobody famous ever came from Palestine, for God’s sake! …"
Errr … Jesus?
How ignorant can this man be? (but to be fair to him – not many people in the audience laughed, at least not out loud …)
Actually, George is right. Nobody ever did teach that the patriotic myths we were fed at school were just that – myths. We were taught about Jesus living in ‘the Holy Land’, but how many British children were taught where Palestine was? Palestine crops up in the news in quite a different context – it’s where ‘terrorists’ set off bombs, and middle-Eastern Islamic fundamentalists like Hamas and Fatah clash with Israeli settlers.
After all – Jesus couldn’t possibly be Middle Eastern, not with the clear white skin He has in the vast majority of religious paintings and illustrations. The night after seeing ‘Pulling Up The Drawbridge’ I was in a High Anglican church in Brighton, with statues of Christ and The Virgin Mary, and they both looked like they came from Surrey …
George hates all the things that make Daily Mail or Daily Express readers angry – new types of fruit with funny foreign names, young people without any sense of discipline or self-control, the demise of the traditional high street It’s easy to poke fun at George, but George is angry because he feels lost. He hasn’t really been taught anything useful about the history of his country – the history of the British Empire and its colonies, and its subsequent decline. He hasn’t been taught anything about the economics of globalisation which have put a Starbucks on every High Street – and destroyed the traditional High Street in order to do it. He just feels angry and disorientated that everything has changed.
What David Stephens has done in this piece – which he performs solo and also wrote – is to give us a man, in his fifties or sixties, who can’t understand what’s happened to the world he lived in as a boy. It’s changed out of all recognition, and he can’t see why, and he hates it and rails against it. Most importantly – its obvious nothing happens without a reason, so somebody must be responsible. George wants someone to blame.
‘They’ must be responsible. Whether ‘They’ are from the European Union, with their Brussels rules and regulations, or whether ‘They’ are immigrants from Asia, or Africa, or Eastern Europe, he hasn’t really considered. All he knows is that ‘They’ are taking over. So he’s perched on the edge of a cliff in his little tent, waiting to repel the invasion – whoever they are. “Piss Off!. We’re Full Up!“ Echoes of Dunkirk, or the Somme – "I won’t let you down, Grandad". The wartime nostalgia that so grips British people – like ‘Dad’s Army’
David Stephens manages to evoke that ‘little Englander’ feeling in George, but he never lets it slip over into overt racism or prejudice. George doesn’t tell us that he doesn’t like non-white people, but he rants against the newly arrived species of spiders that are becoming common. They’re foreign, like the weirdly named fruit. They bite – and they’re black …
And the imagery goes deeper – just as Britain is an island, detached from the main European landmass, so George’s little bit of cliff is splitting away from the main chalk body. Far from being worried, though, George is delighted – "My island’s got a moat!" I remembered the legendary ‘Times’ headline from early last century – "Fog in Channel, Continent cut off". The staging reinforced the writing perfectly – a raised stage gave us the cliff edge, with just the small green tent almost filling it, so George had to keep squeezing round the sides. Like the archetypical Englishman, George has his own castle – but it’s very, very small.
Stephens has created someone quite believable – not an overt bigot, just a man who’s feeling … lost. I felt rather sad for George, the way so many of his pronouncements ended with question tags – "That can’t be right, can it?". He’s not hectoring us with certainties – he’s seeking our approval, our agreement, our reassurance that he’s not alone in what he thinks.
There was a lot of laughter during the show – there are some great gags – and I was still laughing as I left, after the applause died down. But I was uneasy, too. Some bits in ‘Pulling Up The Drawbridge’ need to be written more clearly – George’s relationship with his partner in particular – but in general David Stephens has put his finger on some uncomfortable truths. It’s easy to make fun of George, but ultimately it’s not so much what George feels, as why he thinks the way he does, that we need to worry about.
Stuff that the mainstream political parties don‘t have an answer for. Stuff that theatre can bring to our attention, make us think about.
Surely that’s one of the things theatre is for.