Page last updated at 13:05 GMT, Monday, 2 March 2009

On-stage protest at 'racist' play

Cast of England People Very Nice
The play uses a multi-ethnic cast and has a 300-year timeframe

Protesters invaded the stage at London's National Theatre to object to what they view as "racism" in the new play England People Very Nice.

Two men carrying placards interrupted a talk by the playwright Richard Bean for 10 minutes until removed by security.

It is the first onstage protest in the 32-year history of the theatre.

The protesters plan to picket the sponsor of the comedy, described by the theatre as "a riotous journey through four waves of immigration".

Boisterous satire

The play is set in the Bethnal Green area of east London and traces patterns of people moving into the area since the 17th Century.

Hussain Ismail, a local playwright who led the protest on Friday, told BBC News the play was offensive to several different ethnic groups but found the second half of the work was particularly targeted at the Bangladeshi community.

"Richard Bean is making it seem like all Bangladeshis are drug dealers or users, muggers and marry their cousins," he said.

Teacher Keith Kinsella, who also took to the stage, said: "I find it outrageous that a play that could have been written by a racist year 9 pupil has been allowed to be performed at the National - a publicly funded theatre."

Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre and of this production, said "the play lampoons all forms of stereotyping".

"It is a boisterous satire of stereotypes of French, Irish, Jews, Bangladeshis, white East End cockneys, Hampstead liberals and many others," he continued.

"Every stereotype is placed in the context of its opposite and it clearly sets out to demonstrate that all forms of racism are equally ridiculous."

'Alf Garnett'

The National Theatre maintains that the protesters' request for a debate on the play has already been met.

Three events are planned to take place to discuss the issues in the comedy and the theatre has made one of the events free in response to criticism from the protesters.

But Mr Ismail called these "cosy chats" which would not allow for vigorous questioning from the audience.

The play has received a mixed response from critics.

The Sunday Times found it "a seriously hilarious play", "provocative, swaggering, humane and edgy".

Shadow Children's Secretary Michael Gove said he was surprised the "dramatically appalling" work could be staged in the National Theatre.

"I thought that the humour was vulgar, raucous, obvious. It made Alf Garnett seem sophisticated," he told BBC Two's Newsnight Review.

A performance of the play scheduled for after the talk on Friday went ahead as planned. The play will continue at the National Theatre until 30 June.

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