The YouTube film Innocence of Muslims is one the modern marvels of the internet. So shoddy is its sound that one moment characters appear to be speaking underwater, the next they emulate chipmunks. The green screen studio work is amazingly bad, and the acting is some of the funniest you’ll see this year. It's also evidently one of the most religiously offensive things on the net at the moment, if we go by the worldwide protests it provoked in September this year.
Writer CJ Johnson has taken Innocence of Muslims and its impact on the recent US election as his topic for Hollywood Ending (Or, How a Washed Up Director Made a Crappy Movie that Almost Destroyed the World), showing as part of Griffin's independent season. Production company Arts Radar have employed their Rapid Write format so that topical plays are still topical by the time they reach the stage. By working speedily with director Tim Roseman and dramaturg Lee Lewis, as well as workshopping at length with the cast, Johnson has ended up with an audience-ready script that can still claim relevance.
Johnson’s central focus is on his protagonist, Don (Terry Serio), modelled on the film's director, a former porn director named Alan Roberts. As such, the play's topic is more midlife crisis than Middle East crisis. There are a few nods to world events, but they are not really the core of the play.
Don has two scenes in which he gropes for an understanding of the politics of the situation. First, his left-leaning lesbian daughter, Laura (Caroline Craig), advises him that the screenplay is hate speech. Secondly, when he confronts the film's Republican producer, Amy (Briallen Clarke), she makes an impassioned defence of free speech and tells him to man up. There is also a cute political props placement in one of the final scenes. A small book about Paul Ryan's libertarian high priestess, Ayn Rand, is placed next to a chair leg, for the front row or optically gifted to see. It remains at the chair leg for the scene and is then removed. There's a general rule in theatre that unless a prop is going to be used, don’t put it on stage, but in this case it is a charming little treat for those who can see it.
The show is very funny, and the performances are excellent, but the potential for political commentary is not realised because the discussions are too simple. For instance, Laura likens the film to Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, which is both a huge insult to Rushdie and high praise for Innocence of Muslims. Johnson's writing and Serio's characterisation of Don portray a loveable halfwit who should never have strayed from the set of a porn film. As Rushdie said on the Daily Show in September, "even jerks have the right to free speech, but they're still jerks."
Photo by Patrick Boland.