Shook – Footnotes
My Footnotes to our episode on Shook include more observations on our prejudices against people from different classes or circumstances, parenting as empathy, and the heartbreak of long-distance childbirth.
“I’m always going to be a problem to people like him”
Cain perceptively encapsulates the wariness we feel about people from different classes of society who we know little about and dismiss or fear. He is referring to the prison governor who he rightly assumes lives in a separate world to him and his fellow inmates. It is not just the practical problem of having to lock offenders away to protect ourselves that Cain is describing; it is a much wider general attitude that amounts to social prejudice:
“And he’s telling me I’m the problem? Thinking he’s better than me. I’m always going to be a problem to people like him, innit. Nothing I ever do is right. Where I live is a problem, what music I listen to is a problem,what I wear is a problem. Whenever we have kids, it’s a problem….They should just fucking come clean and admit they just don’t like us and that’s why they locked us up in here.”
Who among us has not made judgements such as these about people from other social classes or circumstances. It is all too easy to disparage, even write off people who are not like us. What we see in Cain, Jonjo and Riyad are complex human beings, who certainly have flaws and who have done harm to others, but who also have talents and inherent goodness. Cain again challenges Grace and us to consider who is “good”. When Jonjo asks Grace if her son Alex is good, she replies “pretty good”; but Cain realises that the question is deeper than that, because he knows that it is difficult to say of them that they are “pretty good”. Their badness has not been trivial – “robbing people, hurting them” – and from a young age. The implication I think is that somehow their lack of goodness is inherent or an inevitable function of the failures of character or behaviour in their families or class. As George so rightly says in our conversation, our view of these boys also stands for our views more generally of others who are less privileged, and is not limited to confirmed criminals. The positive power of the play, however, is as George says that “it makes us care about people that normally we would cross the road to avoid”, which is the beginning of true empathy.
“Parenting is empathy”
We talked a lot about parenting in the podcast, including the inescapable impact that our upbringing or our behaviour as a parent has on our own or our children’s lives. We also talked about the boys’ instinctive desire to be good parents; hence their taking part in the course, despite Riyad’s proclamation that parenting can’t be taught. He contradicts himself however when he sensibly suggests to Grace that parenting skills should be taught in school, along with other practical life skills, like “how you’d get a flat…or vote”; especially “in case you ain’t got no one to show you.” The lack of parenting role models does of course have a huge practical impact on the lives of these boys.
When Sam said during our conversation that “parenting is empathy” he also identified the emotive meaning of being a parent, and the emotional cost to these boys who have not benefited from it. Grace explained that for all of the practical skills she tries to impart, parenting ultimately boils down to being there when “they come to you to make it better”. And Cain speaks for all of us when he tells Riyad that by the time parents are responsible for looking after teenagers they’re all “just making it up as they go along.” So what parenting finally is is learning to care for someone else, and most poignantly what these boys crave is to learn how to love and to be loved. This is vividly expressed in the final image of Jonjo cradling the baby at the close of the play: the lifeless doll substituting for the real baby he won’t be able to touch and the comfort he himself has been denied.
Riyad reveals his innate empathy when he describes being at the birth of his son. He contrived to delay his entry to prison in order to be there for the birth, and despite the “screaming and all that”, he was overwhelmed by the exultant moment when he hears “those little lungs…Crying out for you.” He also displays empathy for the effort of the mother in her labours when he counsels Jonjo that his supporting role is to “tell her it’s all good”. There is no more graphic or heartbreaking symbol of the isolation of these incarcerated fathers than the vision Riyad presents of Jonjo being ‘allowed’ to listen on the phone to the birth of his child when the time comes, and to tell his girl “it’s all good.”
It is 1789 and a group of convicts in the newly-founded colony of Botany Bay in Australia are assembled to put on a production of George Farquhar’s Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer. The true story of this unlikely theatrical enterprise is the subject of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s award-winning play, Our Country’s Good, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 1988 almost exactly 200 years after the events it portrays. The play is a vivid portrait of the volatile new settlement in New South Wales, which raises timeless questions about what makes for a country’s good: the exercise of justice, the iniquities of class, the value of education and culture, and particularly of the redemptive power of theatre itself.
It made complete logical sense to follow our last episode on The Recruiting Officer with this wonderful play, and even more sense to invite Director Matt Beresford back to talk us through it.
George Farquhar’s rollicking Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer is ostensibly a portrait of officers engaged in the nefarious art of impressing men into the army in the country town of Shrewsbury, but it is as much a tale of the local ladies themselves recruiting for lovers and husbands. The classic comic satire of love and war, and sex and deception was first performed at Drury Lane in 1706, and went on to become one of the most frequently performed plays of the 18th century and a staple of education curricula and theatre programming ever since.
Director Matt Beresford joins us to assess the ‘recruiting officers” respective strategies and successes.
Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.
Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …