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A long, hot summer

Theatregoers have a lot to thank the Olympics for. Over the next four months, many of the best theatre companies from around the world will be performing in the UK in the biggest influx of international theatre this country has ever seen.

What better time to admit that mainstream British theatre has a severe Little Englander complex? Our theatre culture isn’t xenophobic so much as blinkered. For the most part, we like our theatre played with a straight bat. We do naturalism and state of the nation. Where we dare venture into or even beyond the empty space, we’d rather things remained this side of literalism.

This has resulted in the exile of leading British theatre artists. Peter Brook emigrated to Paris in the 1970s. (His latest work, The Suit, visits the Young Vic in May for World Stages London.) More recently, Katie Mitchell has been edged out, seemingly restricted to theatre for children at the National Theatre. Love or hate her work, Mitchell is one of our most globally significant directors and, this summer, she presents a new piece, Ten Billion, at the Avignon Festival, arguably the biggest international festival of theatre in the world. You wouldn’t know it. Avignon remains almost entirely ignored in this country.

By its nature, theatre is a localised artform. In spite of the success of NT Live (which broadcasts theatre live to cinemas), audiences and performers need to share the same space. This means that other cultures must come to us, but there remains relatively little international work in this country. While the West End tempts Hollywood stars, only the Barbican shows truly international theatre in London regularly, through its “bite” programme. Steppenwolf’s Detroit, which opens at the National this month, is only the fifth show from outside the UK and Ireland programmed since Nicholas Hytner’s appointment in 2003. (Four of those originated in the United States.)

British theatre should watch and learn from this summer’s array. The Cultural Olympiad has already begun, with Cate Blanchett starring in the Sydney Theatre Company’s ravishing production of Big and Small at the Barbican. Then, there’s the Edinburgh International Festival with directors such as Silviu Purcarete, Christoph Marthaler and Grzegorz Jarzyna, and the World Shakespeare Festival, including New York’s Wooster Group tackling the Bard.

London has two festivals of its own: the biennial London International Festival of Theatre (Lift) from June and World Stages London. Highlights include the playwright Simon Stephens collaborating with the German director Sebastian Nübling on Three Kingdoms, and Babel, a new large-scale work from WildWorks. Lift includes Gatz, Elevator Repair Service’s staging of The Great Gatsby and Back to Back Theatre’s Ganesh v the Third Reich, performed by an ensemble of actors with disabilities.

Feast or famine

The worry is that such a feast will be followed by famine. The government’s cuts to arts funding have kicked in and a disproportionate volume of spending has been channelled into a short period of time.

Already, several theatres have opted to show revivals instead of new work this winter. “Legacy” is intended to be a core element of the Olympics, and the arts have a similar opportunity. All the more reason to look to overseas theatre-makers for inspiration.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis