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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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times