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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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge