Twitter Facebook RSS Feed
No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 16th July 2005

Talking to Terrorists / Aristocrats / The Obituary Show

Poor Robin Soans. His new play, Talking to Terrorists, opened just three days before the bombs exploded last week. Most playwrights hope that their work will have some contemporary resonance, but not quite that much. Talking to Terrorists is a "documentary play" in which actual terrorists explain why they've committed various atrocities and anyone going to see it now will inevitably expect it to throw some light on the question of what makes someone become a suicide bomber. Can any play, however illuminating, withstand such intense scrutiny?

Fortunately, Talking to Terrorists is more or less up to the task. Soans, along with director Max Staffford-Clark and the eight-strong cast, spent a year interviewing a wide range of people with some experience of terrorism, from the man who planted the Brighton bomb to the ex-British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, and the upshot is a fascinating mosaic of different voices, nearly all of which throw some light on the subject. Soans's conclusion, if that's not too strong a word, is that terrorism involves an act of self-mutilation on the perpetrator's part in which he shuts down that part of the brain responsible for empathy and, in this way, avoids taking responsibility for his actions. In order to re-awaken his conscience you have to talk to him--or, rather, to listen to him--and Soans appears to believe that this play and the way it was put together is a model of how to tackle the problem.

Of course, this will strike some people as both platitudinous and shallow, but Soans is smart enough to include the testimony of people who don't share his point of view. The person I identified with most in this two-and-a-half-hour play was Norman Tebbit who's wife, Margaret, was paralysed from the neck down by the Brighton bomb. There's a wonderful moment in the second half when the former MP for Chingford describes his elation on discovering what he thinks is an IRA hit squad planning an attack outside his home:

I picked up the gun, slid out the side door...I'm in my dressing-gown and slippers...I looked up the drive...there's one bloke by the Range Rover and I can see the legs of another guy who's on the far side of the car. I was the happiest man in the world. A twelve-bore's gonna take out anyone with a hand gun.

Alas, the "hit squad" turns out to be a group of police officers checking to make sure no one's put a bomb under Tebbit's car and the dressing-gowned assassin reluctantly trudges back into his house.

Brian Friel is often described as the Irish Chekhov and Aristocrats, which was first performed in 1979, has an unmistakably Chekhovian air. Set in a decaying Georgian country house in the fictional village of Ballybeg, it charts the death throes of an Anglo-Irish Catholic family as it struggles to cope with dire financial necessity. It's strong on atmosphere--the family dynamics are beautifully rendered--but, as with nearly all Friel's plays, it feels more like a short story or a poem than a piece of drama. There's no plot, no conflict, no suspense. Aristocrats even boasts three sisters, as if Friel is inviting the Chekhov comparison, but he lacks Chekhov's ability to grab the audience from the very first moment and not let go. It's mildly absorbing, not least because the characters are so well-drawn, but it hardly deserves this lavish revival on the main stage of the country's most prestigious theatre.

Rather irritatingly, Aristocrats is shot through with Friel's particular brand of nationalist politics. The dying patriarch of the family is a terrible old bully who's destroyed the lives of all his children and we're clearly supposed to see him as embodying the class of English colonialists who, in Friel's eyes, have emasculated the good folk of Ireland for the last 800 years. Friel then steps back from this rather simpleminded position and suggests there's been an element of collusion between oppressed and oppressor, with the Irish themselves mythologizing their aristocratic masters. For some reason, I found this nuanced critique of English colonialism even more irritating than the hardline version.

I wanted to like The Obituary Show because there were only nine people in the audience, prompting a wave of sympathy for the 15-strong company. The actors certainly managed to put a very brave face on this sad state of affairs, performing as if to a full house, and even did a second curtain call to thank the people in the theatre for coming. But, alas, The Obituary Show isn't really my cup of tea. It's set in the obituary department of a national broadsheet and I simply couldn't get past the fact that almost every detail of the newspaper office was wrong. The company--a group calling itself "People Show"--certainly deserve 10 out of 10 for fortitude. What they lack is a piece of work to match their exemplary character.

[ FIXED LINK ] Bookmark and Share

Twitter In this week’s ⁦@calling_podcast⁩ ⁦@JamesDelingpole⁩ and I discuss the looming Coronavirus pandemic, whether there’… link  (5 hours ago)


Why the left keeps losing by John Gray -
The closing of the conservative mind: Politics and the art of war by John Gray -
Cambridge and the exclusion of Jordan Peterson by Nigel Biggar -
The shocking truth about Jordan Peterson by Wesley Yang -
The intellectual dark web by Bari Weiss -
How identity politics is harming the sciences by Heather Mac Donald -
The fall of the German Empire by Ross Douthat -
How Tom Wolfe became Tom Wolfe by Michael Lewis - Vanity Fair
The neuro-diversity case for free speech by Geoffrey Miller -
The Age of Outrage by Jonathan Haidt -
The Warlock Hunt by Claire Berlinski -
Is classical liberalism conservative? by Yarom Hazony -
The Implosion of Western Liberalism by Patrick Lee Miller -
The Eton of the East End - Daily Mail
The reactionary temptation by Andrew Sullivan -
The book that scandalised New York intellectuals by Louis Menand -
To understand Britain today, look to the 17th Century by Adrian Wooldridge -
The crisis in France by Christopher Caldwell -
A Visit to Michaela School by Patrick Alexander -
Why parenting may not matter by Brian Boutwell -
Trump Establishment's Cultural Significance Explained by Michael Wolff -
Branching histories of the 2016 referendum by Dominic Cummings -
Putin's Real Long Game by Molly K McKew -
The Flight 93 Election by Publius Decius Mus -
How the education gap is tearing politics apart by David Runciman -
What's wrong with identity politics by Graeme Archer -
Grammars and the grain of truth by Jonathan Porter
Anti-Brexit: Britain's new class war by John O'Sullivan -
The English Revolt by Robert Tombs -
Democracies end when they are too democratic by Andrew Sullivan -
Human beings really are making progress by Steven Pinker -
What ISIS really wants by Graeme Wood -
A society ripe for Submission by Douglas Murray -
Why I'm a Conservative Teacher by Jonathan Porter -
Corbyn's Inconvenient Truth – He wanted the IRA to win -
Why I've become Tory scum by Tony Parsons -
Inside Westminster's free school -
Robert Conquest obit -
Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite – it's so much worse than that -


Andrew Lilico
Andrew Sullivan
Arts and Letters Daily
Bagehot's Notebook
BBC News
BBC Sport
Benedict Brogan
Brendan O'Neill
Bruce Anderson
Coffee House
Conservative Home
Damian McBride
Damian Thompson
Dan Hodges
Daniel Hannon
Ed West
Frank Furedi
Guido Fawkes
Harry Phibbs
Iain Dale
Iain Martin
James Delingpole
James Wolcott
Joe Murphy
John Rentoul
Labour List
Mark Steyn
Matt Drudge
Mehdi Hasan
Melanie Phillips
Michael Wolff
Nick Cohen
Nick Robinson
Nikki Finke
Paul Waugh
Peter Hitchens
Political Betting
Right Minds
Rob Long
Rod Liddle
Sophy Ridge
Stephen Pollard
The Arts Desk
The Corner
The Daily Beast
The First Post
The Omnivore
The Onion
Tim Shipman
Tim Stanley
Tom Shone


AA Gill
Aidan Hartley
Allison Pearson
Allister Heath
AO Scott
Boris Johnson
Charles Moore
Cosmo Landesman
Daniel Finkelstein
David Brooks
Fraser Nelson
George Monbiot
Giles Coren
Henry Winter
James Delingpole
Jan Moir
Janan Ganesh
Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Warner
Jim White
Jonathan Freedland
Lloyd Evans
Manohla Dargis
Martin Samuel
Mary Ann Sieghart
Matthew d'Ancona
Matthew Norman
Maureen Dowd
Michiko Kakutani
Owen Jones
Patrick O'Flynn
Paul Krugman
Peter Bradshaw
Peter Oborne
Philip Collins
Polly Toynbee
Quentin Letts
Rachel Johnson
Rod Liddle
Roy Greenslade
Tim Montgomerie
Trevor Kavanagh
UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on

  • Buy the book on

  • UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on

  • Buy the book on

  • Audio Book Cover

  • Buy the audio book from
    Whole Story Audio
  • DVD Cover

  • Buy the DVD from

  • Buy the DVD from

  • IMdb Page on the film