Don’t use the N-word or ‘faggots’ but ‘retards’ is fine
First off let me preface this by declaring an interest – I am the father of an autistic boy.
Last night I was ringside for a performance of “Bull” at London’s Young Vic theatre. Literally so, since the set is a boxing ring.
Aptly enough for a 50-odd minute tight, taut, vicious, nasty and bleak bout of bullying-in-suits as playwright Mike Bartlett blasts into watercooler office politics as social Darwinism, where the weak will be mercilessly bullied to oblivion because the strong must prevail.
It is thoughtful stuff albeit delivered with all the deliberate unsubtlety of a DM steel-toe in the face.
But the real discomfort of the play lies in an area which may well be quite unintended by Bartlett but which says much about our easy tolerance – still – of bullying the weak.
It comes from one of the officer tormentors – Isobel – who routinely ridicules her target, Thomas, with a persistent line of disability abuse.
She calls her colleague a “retard”. She likens him as he stands there cowering to an “autistic penguin”. She says he behaves like a “spaz in a sweetshop”.
Of course the intended effect is for us to be further horrified by this pencil-skirt-and-stilettoed monster.
Except it spectacularly failed.
Because each of the above insults caused loud laughs from the audience. A typical London theatre audience: white, young and at least two of them actually reading The Guardian.
If our grotesque office bully had called her hapless, hopeless target a “faggot” had he been gay – any guffaws at that? I think not.
Did Bartlett just chicken out of that one I wonder?
What if he’d made Thomas black and Isobel icily called him the N-word or made monkey noises? Funny? I doubt it somehow. Or, god forbid, he was Muslim or Jewish. Did Bartlett simply bottle it too with all those artistic possibilities?
But a string of disability insults? Well that’s just fine and our usual, tolerant, liberal, right-on London theatre audience is perfectly content to laugh along at “autistic penguin” and “spaz in a sweetshop” because quite plainly they think it’s funny.
Could be Bartlett is making a clever point rather brilliantly here, inviting the audience to fall into the trap by pulling a cheap laugh because disability discrimination is still basically ok whereas racism or homophobia is not ok. Suddenly we are all complicit, exposed.
But it didn’t feel that way for laugh at the bully’s jokes and you buy the bully’s agenda. And how they laughed…
It could also be that it’s just a cowardly play and falls itself straight into the trap of depicting nastiness by pandering to a form of discrimination that’s still acceptable to so many.
I know only this – a hell of a lot of people from the most liberal and tolerant section of our society laughed, and are laughing, at this stuff because they just think it’s funny.
And that message is far bleaker than anything the play itself has to say.
Read more from Alex Thomson on Twitter: @alextomo