November 7, 2020, by Peter Kirwan
Bartholomew Abominations (Graeae/Naked Productions) @ BBC Radio 4
What would happen if Zeal-of-the-Land Busy in Bartholomew Fair had actual power? In Paul Sirett’s radio play, performed by Graeae in conjunction with Naked Productions, Busy is reimagined as Sir Michael Best (Garry Robson), Home Secretary and leading member of the ruling Puritan Party in 2032. In the wake of COVID-19, the Puritans came to power, and as part of the purging of infection, the party is committed to the purging of other unwanted elements, including all foreigners and the ‘taint of disability’. Any non-English, D/deaf, blind, disabled or neurodiverse people are going to be rounded up and interned at midnight tonight, unless they can get married to an able-bodied English person. And so, a group of people turn up at the Bartholomew Marriage Fair, desperate to secure their right to stay in the country.
It’s probably better in some ways to come to Bartholomew Abominations without the baggage of Jonson, as the play only borrows very loose elements from Jonson’s satire. Instead, this play works nicely as a bleak satire, closer to Years and Years or Children of Men than anything else. As is Graeae’s practice, the play pursues the way in which society structurally marginalises and commits violence against specific groups in an intersectional way. The targeting of D/deaf, disabled, blind, neurodiverse people with the same language and structures used to target immigrants is an attempt to draw an equivalence not for the purpose of suggesting that all marginalised groups experience the same kinds of structural violence, but rather that the machinery of a protectionist state hurts everyone, and any form of resistance needs to be intersectional.
Best is overseeing the Fair, and is asked by the Prime Minister to propose to Philippa Purecraft (Liz Carr) as a PR stunt, to help give the impression that the Fair is part of a celebration of real love, rather than a cynical attempt to enable the rounding-up of the people targeted for deportation. Alice (Stacey Ghent) and Ursula (Chloe Ewart) run an ‘English Wives’ stall where they charge money to set up speed-dates with themselves; the two are lovers, and Alice has partial hearing loss, but so far the state doesn’t know about it. While they are pretending to be part of the system, they’re secretly recruiting as part of a resistance movement, heralded by repeated tannoy messages from a distorted voice that promises the secrets of this government will be revealed shortly. They meet Tom (Stephen Collins), a Deaf man, and Ned (Michael Golab), a Polish man, who are trying to get married themselves, and end up recruiting the two men to their cause.
Meanwhile, Best is suspicious of Philippa’s son-in-law, John Macalister (Jack Hunter), a Scottish man who uses a wheelchair, and has John arrested and interrogated violently by Hobbs (Mina Anwar). It’s in this plotline that the story gets particularly dark, as the interrogation tactics include assaulting John and locking him into a 1m by 1m box, an act which kills him. The juxtaposition between the public-facing, calm tones of the minister responsible for overseeing the peaceful implementation of the government’s extraordinary act, and his private machinations against his girlfriend’s son-in-law while at the same time trying to keep her on side, is a particularly brutal indictment of the hypocrisy of a state that will stop at nothing in its oppression; Best has no qualms about brushing off Philippa’s concerns as ‘fake news’.
There are moments of potential comedy during the speed-dating, though the citizenship test is far too close to the bone to feel genuinely funny (sample question: ‘The Independent Living Fund, previously used to support disabled people, was repealed because it discriminated against able-bodied people. True or False?’ – the answer, of course, being true). The satire quickly switches to straight-up horror as the state begins kettling people at the Fair. The anxiety and turmoil riled up by The Voice quickly dispels the facade of the Fair and reveals the police state waiting to shift to more overtly violent tactics; at the same time, government records are wiped, removing the surveillance data used to track people. Ursula, Alice, Tom and Ned escape the immediate violence and are last hear running away, but their ultimate fate is left unknown.
When Philippa learns that John is dead, she reveals herself as the Voice, having been using Best for his access to records and technology and to broadcast her disguised messages. Before she herself is inevitably shot, she points out the contradictions of a state and the lies made by individuals as they seek to protect themselves by attacking others: Hobbs is epileptic, Best was born in Kashmir, the Prime Minister has ADHD. Under a discriminatory set of laws that aims for physical perfection and some kind of nationally pure identity (whatever that means), everyone is a target. Philippa’s death ensures that the Puritan Party is able to complete its exercise, and announce – in the play’s closing speech – having taken ‘the first steps toward being a great nation, a pure nation, a fit and healthy nation again’. The satire is broad, but then, we’re in a world that warrants broad satire at the moment, and it’s a stark reminder that all movements to create a ‘healthy’ identity for a nation by targeting malign elements are only hacking away at themselves.
The cast are all great. It’s impressive how well, in an audio-only drama, the company captures the multi-faceted communication processes between Tom and his companions, and the warmth built up between the four amid the background noise of tumult and violence (and a wonderful ominous score by Oliver Vibrans) is convincing even in its brief sketch; as so often in Graeae’s work, the good-faith work done to enable communication allows for a persuasive sense of intimate bonds being formed. Robson’s sanctimonious Best combines elements of Busy and Justice Overdo in his elitist confidence and brazen manipulation, and Carr’s Philippa is a nice, down-to-earth foil to that. And Anwar is menacing as the matter-of-fact interrogator, while Hunter shifts between confidence (while he is a wheelchair user, he’s already married to an English woman so is safe) and terror as the interrogation goes on.
It’s relentlessly bleak, and in its combination of deportation centre and shopping mall, Bartholomew Abominations pinpoints precisely the intersections between capitalism, racism, ableism, homophobia (Ursula and Alice need to keep their relationship secret) and xenophobia. The NHS was cut up and sold off long ago; people are fed into systems; bread and circuses (through the lure of buying marriage) are used as cover for policies of mass violence. There’s no victory at the end, though if there’s any hope, it’s in the ability of people to forge connections despite state aggression and to commit to fighting back. Victories aren’t easy, but regardless of the Fair’s purpose, it created the carnival space to begin fomenting resistance that may, one day, be enough to face down tyranny.