When the director of the production that you have just watched stands up in the ensuing Q&A session and states quite calmly that the novel that he’s adapted is quite controversial, polemic and provocative, then it should come as no surprise that HOME’s scratch production of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission is controversial, polemic and pretty much provocative.
Then again the novel on which HOME’s production of Submission is based courted much controversy when it was first released in 2015. The plot of the novel sees France come under Islamic rule following the elections in 2022, which allows the fictional Mohammed Ben Abbes to become President in order to keep Marine Le Pen’s Front National out of power. The tale is told through the eyes of François, a middle-aged literature professor – with a mild obsession of 19th century French novelist and art critic Joris-Karl Huysmans – who has a tendency to sleep with his students.
Of course Houellebecq’s critics cited Submission as islamophobic, misogynistic, anti semitic and a wrath of other words that no doubt end in “-ics”. His defenders argued that it was a satirical imagining of a future Europe.
HOME were obviously aware that this could prove to be contentious and in its notes online tried to affirm that “Submission is a political thriller, a dystopian novel and most importantly a satire.” It further bid to dampen any hysterical ardour by pointedly referencing its reputation as islamophobic by stating “Submission is provocative but its target is not Islam.”
Everyone got that?
As part of it’s France Now season HOME have taken a celebrated novel and within a week have come up with an embryonic version that can be played out on a stage. Director Teunkie van der Sluijs and his company of actors deserve great credit for cobbling together something that is not just coherent and captivating but also keeps the provocative spirit of Submission with its performance. Indeed, it does not shy away from watering down any of Houellebecq’s controversial themes, embracing them in some wonderfully warm caricatures of characters from the book.
Nonetheless, if truth be told, this is a conflicting production to sit through. In the week that the UK Parliament has come up with a definition of Islamophobia, we have an institution within Manchester that has a show that some observers will claim is Islamophobic.
Theatre houses like HOME cannot play it safe all the time. They can choose to also provoke debate and stimulate discussion through productions such as Submission. Whilst it may not be palatable for everyone’s tastes, what cannot be denied is that HOME are at forefront of pushing the boundaries and when they do so they should be commended.
Furthermore, I’d say that HOME’s price point for these showing – a meagre five pounds – was also another commendable gesture that shows what a conscientious art hub can do in bringing in an audience that is both diverse and that can afford to do so.
Yes, Submission is going to offend. Yes, it’s provocative. Yes, its rough around the edges and no where near the finished product. Yet, I cannot wait to see the end result and if HOME are mindful of how they engage with its audience then Manchester’s theatregoers will be richer for having productions like Submission than not at all.
Verdict: A scratch performance from one of Manchester leading theatre companies, Submission is a thought provoking and provocative portrayal of controversial French author Michel Houellebecq’s novel of an Islamic president.