Theatre, not just for Asians

Far from worthy, the Propeller festival is a showcase for exciting new plays.

Before I attended the Propeller festival of Asian theatre on Monday night, I had thought that a showcase for specifically Asian talent would be dated and retrogressive.

Post-East is East, post-Bombay Dreams, post-Slumdog Millionaire, I felt we were a bit beyond this potentially patronising sort of "platform". The planned mothballing of the BBC's Asian Network feels like the final boot for a state-sponsored British Asian cultural movement and I half-agreed with commentators l Catherine Bennett who welcome its demise as healthy sign of the times.

Also unlike Asian music, film and dance, most audiences wouldn't claim Asian theatre as a distinct artistic genre or, I suspect, care if a play is brought to them by Asian directors, set-designers, and writers.

However, two days and four plays later, I now want to see Propeller staged at the National Theatre next year. Here, I have seen more fresh, exciting drama about modern Britain that truthfully reflects my experience of it than in my entire adult theatre-going life. And these performances are just works in progress.

Since my first-generation Pakistani immigrant parents first introduced me to theatre, at the National 25 years ago, I've been hoping to see something of their and my world reflected on its stages with the same quality of the Molière play we first attended. But the more Asian themed work I've seen at the National over the years, the less I've wanted to see any Asian theatre anywhere.

In fact, in the last year I've attended three performances there which portrayed British Asian or Muslim identity: The Black Album, Waiting and England People Very Nice. Although well-intentioned, Waiting, a verbatim play about the women left behind when their husbands were interned under terror laws was not really drama at all but performed journalism. Despite its intention to give voice to the voiceless, it was an outsider's version of Muslim womanhood seen through the prism of headlines, which ended up reinforcing the idea of us as victims.

The Black Album, again about terrorism (I spot a theme), was embarrassingly dull. And England People... succeeded because it was honest about its shallow treatment of characters of all races. The National seems institutionally incapable of staging a high quality production with three-dimensional contemporary Asian characters. The success of Tamasha, the theatre company behind Propeller, in doing just that would suggest that the problem is a lack of awareness among people who commission and produce plays, rather than those who write them.

In the Propeller plays (Snookered, Lotus Beauty, Blood and Zindabad) the characters, storylines and dialogue ring true. True - not self-consciously authentic, and not crowded out by a sea of issues. Snookered is about four young men meet up in a snooker hall on evening on the birthday of their dead friend Talub. Its writer, Ishy Din, has a sharp ear for quick-fire, blokey, put-downs which are delivered throughout with perfect timing by a remarkably assured cast. But the irresistibly silly schoolboy banter is woven into much darker deeper probings into fragile masculinity reminiscent of Glengarry Glen Ross.

When one character is accused of being a "fundo" because he's not drinking alcohol I fear the obligatory airing of the "Jihadi generation" issue but it never comes, at least not in an explicit way. Difficult themes like religion, drug addiction, misogyny, poverty and racism do feature but Snookeredis first and foremost a subtle, complex, entertaining and truthful play about the inner lives of young British men who happen to be Muslims.

On the face of it, Propeller is the result of a rough and ready 3 weeks in workshops and rehearsal rooms in a church hall in Pimlico. In fact Tamasha first commissioned writers Ishy Din, Satinder Chohan, Avaes Mohammad and Em Hussain years ago as part of an ongoing quest to find and develop new writers. Din, who works as a taxi driver in Middlesbrough, told me the prolonged support was crucial for him because he doesn't move in the rarefied London-based theatre world. Chohan spent two months working in a Hounslow beauty salon to research Lotus Beauty, which is set in one.

Come to think of it, this is exactly how East is East came about - it was Tamasha that first "found" the script for East is East and developed it as a play. It's the same painstaking route that produces good theatre everywhere - Asian or not.

Propeller is on until Saturday 27 March at The Gate theatre, London

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem