The PLAYWRIGHT walks onto the stage. A spotlight catches up with him. He looks up and nods at the audience.
PLAYWRIGHT: Oh don’t get up! Yes, of course, I know you’re there. You don’t write sell-out plays without having a permanent audience in mind. First question they ask you in the arts today: “Who’s it for?” The corollary being, “Who’s for it?” My multi-award-winning trick is to stick it to the famous in a you-know-who-ish way. The public has to guess who and what you’re nailing while at the same time not feeling attacked themselves. They’ve paid forty quid a pop, remember, to be told what a bunch of wankers are running the show. I send them home satisfied that anyone they might feel they have to admire is no better than a hound dog: low to the ground, with a nose for other people’s excrement and all set to hump anything that moves. I challenge and I also entertain. Smooth and abrasive are synonyms in my book. Give ‘em sugar with their hemlock and they’ll always come back for more. I aim to make people think, but not scratch their heads, especially not when they should be clapping! I’m accessible and I’m relevant. Enigmatic I’m not: one of my characters asks a question, he gets an answer. I leave it to Harold and Tom to be Olympian. Me, I stay below the snow-line I swing my pick in issues that impinge on people’s lives. Women, for me, carry the conscience of humanity. Men are the chancers. Women…care. They also decide which plays people go to. So here’s a tip: always give your female lead a climactic speech saying what shit men have made of things and you’ll be in with an enhanced majority. Why am I telling you all this? You’re right: I’m busking my spiel because, however established I am (and I am) I get nervous when it comes to a new commission. What’s this one going to be about? Good question. And the very one I’ve come to see him to discuss.
A shimmer of red and golden light. Music: Jerusalem, gentle and a little skittish.
BOSS backs onto the stage, talking into his mobile. He wears half-boots, chinos and a big sweater. He has a jaunty cap on his shaved head. He wears narrow rectangular glasses.
BOSS: (Into mobile) The one at the Studio? It’s doing very well. Ian is wonderful. Harriet is wonderful. Michael is Michael. I know what your critic said, I thanked the little shit personally. Tuesday? How many seats do you need? Impossible. That said, they’ll be there.
He pockets the phone, looks at the PLAYWRIGHT, claps his hands together and then holds them out, apart.
BOSS: Maestro! You’re here at last!
PLAYWRIGHT: How are you, boss?
BOSS: (Winking at the PLAYWRIGHT) The only man in London who thinks I’m Bertolt Brecht!
PLAYWRIGHT: Mother Courage, that’s what you’ll have to be to buy the idea that’s gestating in my head.
BOSS: Come to mama!
They embrace. BOSS holds the PLAYWRIGHT by the shoulders.
BOSS: Which pillar of society are you planning to play Samson to this time?
PLAYWRIGHT: Were you ever a Socialist, Boss?
BOSS: Was I ever a virgin? Who wasn’t? Apart from her! What did it actually mean? Being a socialist.
PLAYWRIGHT: Not being one of Them. Believing in…what we believed in.
BOSS: In that case, of course. Of course. Good Lord! Do you want something?
PLAYWRIGHT: A straight commission and the usual royalties, if you can’t do any better.
BOSS: In the refreshment line.
PLAYWRIGHT: I’m good, thanks.
BOSS: So: what’s the story?
BOSS: Tell me about it. They’re threatening to cut our budgets to the bone.
PLAYWRIGHT: Don’t you have to have a bone for them to do that? Only kidding. What I meant was, fund-raising is the subject of my new play. The Labour party’s in particular. And the way shekels have become the leit-motif of the post-political politics that we have today, or at least yesterday. The corrosion of ideals by the rust of compromise and opportunism.
BOSS: Flesh it out for me. Who are we gunning for, who are we rooting for? Who’s going to care and about what? Relevance-wise.
PLAYWRIGHT: Moral degeneration.
PLAYWRIGHT: You said you wanted writers who were fearless and adventurous.
BOSS: And play to ninety percent capacity. Your head can be in the clouds, maestro, but here in the valley of the shadow of the Arts Council we need bums on seats. Avant-garde and derriere-cri. Scandal, yes, but tasteful with it. Like your one about quasi-buggery in the Church of England. Angst, knees and bumps-a-daisy. That was a hot ticket. Selected targets is the rule of modern satire. Rueful yes; nasty, no.
PLAYWRIGHT: When was I nasty? I do grown-up pillow-fights. Lots of feathers, no bruises. Lashings of rue.
BOSS: So this time what?
PLAYWRIGHT: Money-raising linked with blind ambition, double standards and the wrecking of young lives by politicos who once really, really cared and now cling to office at the expense of their souls. And, at the centre of the web, your unelected Moriarty figure pulling the strings and pushing the boat out. So: titles.
BOSS: (Sucks in breath through his teeth) As in cash for? That worries me. After all, there was a long police inquiry and they finally decided that no one did anything illegal. Hey, didn’t Tony give you a title? You didn’t buy it, did you?!
PLAYWRIGHT: Tony wanted to show his support for progressive theatre. He asked me to accept, as a friend.
BOSS: And now you’re planning to blow him out of the water.
PLAYWRIGHT: What are friends for? No, listen, when I said titles, I was actually referring to my new play. I’ve got one that says it all. Title. Are you ready for this? “Thirty Pieces of Silver”. How does that grab you?
BOSS: Doesn’t buy much these days.
PLAYWRIGHT: The Biblical reference gives it depth beyond merely dishing the dirt. Scratch the surface and what do you get? God and Mammon; Faith and Betrayal. Ending with a heavenly choir to sing us out!
BOSS: Who’s your Judas?
PLAYWRIGHT: Let’s get one thing out of the way, before I go any further: no one’s going to say I’m an anti-Semite. This isn’t about that. At all. One bit. He isn’t Jewish. My Fagin Svengali Shylock character. Necessarily.
BOSS: A lot of people think I’m Jewish.
PLAYWRIGHT: Don’t deny it. That’ll prove it.
BOSS: It’s not an issue today. Any more than being gay is. Isn’t your wife?
PLAYWRIGHT: Half. Possibly. She doesn’t practise; she’s perfect already. Look, the bottom line is, we prove we’re not anti-Semitic by not hesitating to put the boot into Yidden who need a good kicking. It would be anti-Semitic not to.
BOSS: Of course. (Thinks about it) Why?
PLAYWRIGHT: If we were actually racist we wouldn’t dare. But we’re not. I’m not even sure it isn’t racist to call the Jews a race. As for Thirty Pieces, I’ll swear none of the characters are Jewish, least of all Mordecai Muck.
BOSS: Mordecai Muck?
PLAYWRIGHT: Schmuck he isn’t! His joke, not mine. He’s the man with the just too tight Huntsman suits, the Cartier watches – look, one on each wrist! - and the diamond cuff-links. Jewish? Who says he’s Jewish? You’d have to be an anti-Semite to say that.
BOSS: Obviously. I’ll tell the Press Office. Are you thinking Sir for him?
PLAYWRIGHT: I’m thinking Sir; alternatively, I’m thinking Michael. Harold could’ve done him in the days when he was still Jewish; if we couldn’t get anybody else. Let me get one thing straight, boss: this is not a one-note, one-issue piece, at all. Everyone gets it right where it hurts: below the bagel belt. Fair’s unfair, right? I’m also going to stick it to the press, guardians of freedom and all that. He buys and sells newspapers does Mordy. Oh, and I’m making him gay, as a bird. Gives us deniability when Lord Four-By-Two shlaps us with a writ. Which he won’t. You want to camouflage something, drag it out in the open. Drag being the key word. How can Mordy be Lordy Lordy when he’s obviously Mandy Mandy? But then again, no, he isn’t Mandy either, because Mandy was never a hairdresser and he never put on pop concerts and he never made millions or played handball with the P.M. on his own court. What this is basically about is the soul of the Labour party and how it got lost in the wash.
BOSS: I’m not keen on agitprop as such. Or drama-doc.
PLAYWRIGHT: Am I? I’m a creative artist, not a journo! We’re allowed to have a dig at journos because they’re part of the back-scratching nexus. I’m thinking of stirring in Conrad and his thrice-nightly lady.
BOSS: As long as you make it clear it’s only the Canadian fraudster-type tycoon you’re gunning for. Keep right off absentee multi-media moguls who use their clout to swing elections in return for renewed offshore tax-status and also run movie studios on the side. Because…
PLAYWRIGHT: Think I want to make serious enemies? Trust me, boss.
A rehearsal room in the National Theatre. Metal chairs and tables are arranged to mimic the Bishop’s Avenue house of Mordecai Muck. Present are Ronnie Poop, the director, in black cords, red tank top, Sir Kenneth Patel, playing Mordecai Muck, and Julie Starr, playing the Cabinet Minister Harriet Yoohoo. PLAYWRIGHT sits on a chair, back to front, watching.
SIR KENNETH: (As MORDECAI) Money doesn’t just make the world go round, Harriet my poppet, it makes it go any shape we like. Money has a bad name but it does wonderful things. Problems with your mortgage? Come to papa. I like to help people! For why? I love this country -- it’s been good to me. Now I’ve got a chance to be good to the people who run it. What do I want in return? Nothing. Is that too much to ask? I wish I could afford to buy the Labour party, I love it so much, but unfortunately it’s too pricey, so I go and rattle my collecting box around a few upwardly mobile people who’re willing to pay ten grand and up to kiss the Prime Minister’s ass. After he’s towelled off. Does that make me a villain already?
PLAYWRIGHT: Ronnie, can I stop you there a moment?
RONNIE: Make it quick. Time is money.
PLAYWRIGHT: I didn’t write “already”. Sir Ken said “already”. I didn’t write that.
RONNIE: For this we have to stop?
PLAYWRIGHT: Sir Ken…
SIR KEN: Don’t sir me, I don’t sir you. This is a democracy. It slipped out. Already. It seemed natural. That’s the way they talk, don’t they?
PLAYWRIGHT: Who exactly?
SIR KEN: You know who.
PLAYWRIGHT: You’re talking about them. I’m not! I am totally not. Watch it, OK? Because -
RONNIE: Let’s not jump to contusions, boychik!
SIR KEN: You want I should give my character’s diction a nose-job, I’ll give it a nose-job. But I have to go with the character you’ve written.
PLAYWRIGHT: I will not be branded an anti-Semite. You can be if you want to. But I warn you.
SIR KEN: Me, you’re warning? I’ll show you my awards if you show me yours. You warn me, I warn you. I’m playing the modern Svengali here.
JULIE jumps up and walks to centre stage where PLAYWRIGHT is now standing.
JULIE: You fucking hypocrites.
PLAYWRIGHT: Not yet, darling. We’re coming to that bit.
JULIE: Why don’t we bloody well come out with it? They’re behind everything. They pervert everything and everyone. They always have. The huckster race. Marx said it and he was right. They’re there to be hated. That’s the only reason they even exist. Ever since they killed Christ. Ever since they invented usury, and twelve-tone music, and slavery, and dud batteries and doner kebabs and finally blew up the World Trade Center. Logically of course they did, or would have, and could have. They fix everything. That’s why this play could be a smash, if you’ve got the guts to tell the people what they want to hear: nothing is our fault, everything is (Points at SIR KENNETH) his fault, their fault. Including Diana and Dodie. Ask Mossad. The tsunami? It wouldn’t surprise me, quite honestly.
A stunned silence.
RONNIE: (To PLAYWRIGHT) Terrific re-write. You must’ve been up all night. We could bring the curtain down with that one. Stunned silence time.
JULIE: He didn’t say that. I did.
PLAYWRIGHT: Julie…darling…I can’t…go along entirely with some of the things you…say.
RONNIE: From the top, Sir Kenneth.
SIR KENNETH: You don’t have to call me sir.
JULIE: (Quietly to Playwright) Even when they aren’t what they are, they still are.
PLAYWRIGHT: (putting his arm around Julie and walking her downstage) I know. And we must never, never say so. Already.
RONNIE: So soon.
Jerusalem, quietly at first then rising to crescendo as lights fade leaving Julie and Playwright in spot.
Frederic Raphael will be appearing at Jewish Book Week 2009. His latest book, Ticks and Crosses is published by Carcanet.