BLOG 24/12/17: PARLIAMENT SQUArE
Yesterday, I had an appointment in the West End at one, so afterwards, I toddled down to the Bush Theatre on me tod, as I wasn't sure if Parliament Square was the kind of feel-good show suitable for a red-hot date and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Well, you know me: at this time of festive feeling and good will towards all men, there’s only so many times I can listen to Walking in a Winter Wonderland before I need to lighten up, unwind a little and watch a play about an act of self-immolation.
First of all, the review.
Was it any good? Yes, it was pretty good: three stars, maybe four.
Was it in yer face? Yes, it was in my face, thank you.
Did it make you think? Hmm, yes, it made me think. I think.
Was it as horrifying as Walking in a Winter Wonderland? Not even close.
(Marah Carey’s All I want for Christmas is You? About on a par.)
The first half of James Fritz’s play was particularly powerful. It dramatized the conflict within the protagonist’s head as a debate between two actresses, Esther Smith and Lois Chimimbha, as Kat wrestled with whether she should make her way to Parliament Square with a can of petrol and a lighter in order to make her suicidal protest against the state of the world. (This was interesting to me in dramaturgical terms, as I’m currently writing a one-act play which involves a debate between the older and younger versions of the same character, who are similarly played by different actors.)
"Like terrorism, self-immolation is a kind of horrible theatre: a performance, a media event, a stunt. It’s in yer face."
But what lingered most with me was the play’s theme. Parliament Square is not about terrorism: instead, it involves the kind of protest Buddhist monks famously made about the Vietnam War: burning oneself alive as an act of resistance. (I’ve recently read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, so I came primed to think about this particular subject.) Consequently, the audience is concerned with the futility of the action (nobody cares what motivated Kat); the agony it creates for the protagonist (Kat is saved from death by a well-meaning teenager and has to live on with her burns); and the misery Kat’s protest creates for her family (they are only concerned that Kat recovers and returns to her responsibilities as a wife and mother). We don’t, then, have the distraction of worrying about violence done to others, as in a suicide bombing or in the kinds of attacks that we’ve recently seen at Borough Market or on London Bridge: instead, we can just focus on the whole crack-brained notion of affecting change through voluntarily making oneself a martyr.
But the impulse is the same as terrorism: self-immolation, like a bomb attack or a van driven at tourists, does not seek to achieve political change by inflicting significant damage on the real infrastructure of power, but instead simply stages a spectacle for the consumption of an audience. It’s a kind of horrible theatre: a performance, a media event, a stunt. It’s in yer face.
This, perhaps surprisingly, made me think of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. In his classic study, Foucault considers how power has moved from spectacular displays of judicial violence against the body of the malefactor (the torture and execution of the would-be assassin of Louis XV) to the modern state where power is enforced by surveillance of the populace and punishment takes place in closed prisons (where criminals are sequestered away from the public eye, watched only by their gaolers).
Today, prisoners taken in Afghanistan and Iraq are disappeared for decades, without public trial, into internment camps, such as at Guantanamo Bay, and we’re assured that we must, at all costs, deny the terrorist ‘the oxygen of publicity’, to use Margaret Thatcher’s well-worn phrase. Meanwhile, there seems no limit to the spite and the cruelty terrorist are willing to commit to grab the headlines and command public attention: blowing up children and teenagers at a pop concert; driving lorries through Bastille Day revellers; mowing down tourists on a Tunisian beach with automatic weapons; blowing up worshippers in mosques Sinai or Nigeria.
These are not revolutionary acts—realistic and viable attempts to use violence to wrest power from the state—and have no clearer logic about how they might affect political change than Kat’s decision to incinerate herself in Parliament Square. But everyone now knows that we resist political power today primarily by refusing to remain silent and invisible, by making a stand, making a scene, So, who is the audience such spectacles are intended for?
Does modern terrorism seek to change the opinions of the wider population? (Indiscriminate murder does not seem a likely means to persuade others to support an unpopular cause.) Does terrorism seek to enthuse those who share the same political agenda? (Maybe. But would the actions of their admirers be any more purposeful in affecting real political change?) Or is the audience the terrorist seeks to impress simply all-seeing, all-knowing God? (But can anyone really believe in a God barmy enough, and cruel enough, to applaud blowing children to small pieces?)
Or is the primary audience political violence seeks to address simply the individual consciousness, and personal conscience, of the terrorist? (Like Kat in Parliament Square, whose grand spectacle of protest and resistance is ignored by the public and written off by her family as an act of madness?)
Self-immolation is, in some ways, even more disturbing than terrorism. It’s easy to shrug off the self-contradictory idea that a benevolent God is standing in the stalls applauding indiscriminate acts of violence against other human beings. But what of the celebration of martyrdom as a proof of faith? This has traditionally been a central strand of Christian faith, as well as of contemporary Islam. What of all the painted saints in Catholic churches, from Sebastian to Catherine, whose gory deaths we are expected to venerate? What of the Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake, like Latimer and Ridley? What of the way Christ’s message is seen to lie more in his death and suffering on the cross than in his gospel of love and forgiveness? Two other texts might be intriguing to consider next to Parliament Square: Ted Hughes’ The Martyrdom of Bishop Ferrar and Shaw’s satirical assault on ‘Crosstianity’ in his brilliant prologue to Major Barbara.
Kat, in Parliament Square, is not religious: in fact, she is contemptuous and dismissive towards her Christian physiotherapist in the second part of James Fritz’s play. She just wants a voice, she wants a stage, she wants the limelight. So, she sets her body ablaze to broadcast her message, but what exactly she’s protesting about, what she was trying to say with this transfiguring act of self-martyrdom is ironically lost forever: Kat's message was consigned to a letter to her mother, which was promptly burned on receipt. And who can blame Mum?
"Foucault considers how power has moved from spectacular displays of judicial violence to the modern state in which power is enforced by surveillance of the populace and punishment takes place in closed prisons"
"I was emphatically not someone declaring ‘Je suis Charlie’ in response to the killings in Paris"
It would be easy for the liberal to conclude that the solution is to free up space for all opinions, however unpalatable, so that everyone might find their audience without the need for grotesque spectacles of violence. I think I briefly used to spout this kind of naïve twaddle, too. However, I no more want to give a platform to Holocaust deniers and calls for Jihad against infidels than the next fellow. Indeed, appalled as I was by the atrocities in Paris, I was emphatically not someone declaring ‘Je suis Charlie’ in response to the killings. I believe you may well be free under the law to mock other people’s religion and beliefs—ridiculing their Prophet and their Holy Book with deliberately offensive cartoons—but that doesn’t stop you from being an ignorant, racist git, in my humble opinion. (Indeed, I am not wholly convinced that I am willing to provide a platform unchallenged for Walking in a Winter Wonderland or Mariah Carey.) There do surely have to be limits to free speech, even if these limits should rely more on voluntary restraint than on the strong hand of the law.
Anyway, Parliament Square is an uneven play, but it’s well worth seeing. It’s probably the most thought-provoking thing I’ve seen since Duncan Macmillan’s superb People, Places and Things, which I saw at the Oxford Playhouse way back in October.