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War on the stage

"Trojan Women" and "Arab Nights" reviewed.

The Trojan Women
Gate Theatre, London W1

Arab Nights
Soho Theatre, London W11

After the struggle, the struggle. War doesn’t end with armistice, nor revolutions with resignation. The past needs dismantling and some alternative future installing in its place. Change is easy. Transition is hard. In The Trojan Women, Euripides shows us the demolition. Troy’s women – her widows and grieving mothers – become the spoils of war, divvied up among enemy generals as concubines and slaves.

Caroline Bird’s excoriating, if awkward, contemporary spin for the Gate Theatre has “the crème de la femme” await their fates in the mother-and-baby unit of a women’s prison. Cartoon animals are stuck to the walls. Below, a quivering expectant mother is handcuffed to a bed. You see her bruises before her bump. Two beds down, Hecuba (Dearbhla Molloy), “a queen without a city,” sparks up a cigarette and complains about the air con. Her pregnant cellmate clasps a duvet to her face to protect the child inside. Even in these end-times, solidarity isn’t given a second’s thought. “We’re not the same class of woman,” Molloy miaows.

That pregnant woman is, essentially, us. She is Bird’s Chorus, as nameless as she is helpless. No one listens to her pleas nor her sense. Played by Lucy Ellinson, an actress who makes every artistic choice a matter of personal politics, the Chorus is a clenching, cramping cold-sweat of a woman; excruciating to watch. By the end, both her duvet and child will be snatched away.

Her ordinariness is matched by that of their warden, Talthybius (a plodding and genial Jon Foster). He only ever obeys orders, but that compliance, siding with superiors against his peers, is crime enough. He could dish out those egg mayo sarnies all day and still not atone for it.

Even in despair, class divides. Molloy’s Hecuba – imagine Ab Fabwritten by J G Ballard – gets special treatment, as do her daughters, Cassandra and Andromache, and her son’s wife, Helen of Troy (here, “the face that launched a thousand dicks”). For some reason, the last three are all played – and smartly differentiated – by Louise Brealey (Molly from Sherlock). Bird might be making some aside about the roles imposed –madwoman, mother and whore respectively – but it’s both unclear and distracting.

Ultimately, Bird’s attempt to inject some reality, to replace the familiarity of myth with the recognition of modernity, proves double-edged. Certainly, she restores the blunt horrors that are so commonplace in Greek tragedy they go unnoticed. Hecuba is unrepentant about sacrificing a daughter for the safe return of her son’s corpse and later asks straightforwardly, “Do you think it’s easy to kill a baby?” Her backstory rarely gets such a critical raking over.

However, such jolts are undermined, not enhanced, by Bird’s efforts to ground them in the banal details of sandwiches and painkillers, because she gets carried away. About to be claimed by Achilles’s son, Andromache bemoans the “fucking salmon and hollandaise tarts” that made her such a prime catch. The aim is archness but the results are glib, even flippant.

Jokes require fine-tuning, which makes the text self-conscious and that, in turn, impedes the emotional Semtex, the agony and grief at the play’s heart. It’s hard to feel for someone, no matter how desperate their circumstances, if they’re still capable of delivering a killer aside. Tonally, Bird wants to be both Catch 22 and Schindler’s List but ridicule and tragedy, if not carefully handled, can cancel each other out. Christopher Haydon’s production follows suit, caught between cartoon and torture. There’s little sense of the world beyond the ward.

If Euripides takes things apart, Metta Theatre’s Arab Nights at the Soho Theatre shows a rebuilding. Stories are the first step. Incidentally, the Arabian Nights are almost as ubiquitous as Cinderella this Christmas. Four open nationwide within ten days. Might theatremakers facing funding cuts have found solidarity with Shahrazad, the woman whose life depends on her next story? The director, Poppy Burton-Morgan, likens her to Mohamed Bouazizi, Tunisa’s “burning man”. For three years, the Sultan has killed a wife each morning. Shahrazad (Dina Mousawi) willingly volunteers for marriage, risking her life to stem the executions with stories.

They’re a mixed bag, stylistically. The Iraqi playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak provides a fable about a randy old goat returning from exile to hijack a younger generation’s victory. Tania El Khoury’s The Dictator’s Wife is closer to sketch, as the wife’s PA rewords her tweets while she shops for shoes online. Ghalia Kabbani shows a blogger writing about one of Shahrazad’s stories and makes a Möbius strip of the structure, since Shahrazad herself is telling the blogger’s story.

Burton-Morgan’s staging is Peter Brook by the book. A wall of 1,001 shoeboxes lines the back of the stage. Sometimes they become laptops and iPads. Shoes used as hand puppets become characters; Louboutin stilettos as armed thugs, scuffed brogues as humble protestors. It’s a smart vocabulary, referencing both shoe-based protests and western materialism but cutesy theatrics lighten the impact.

Arab Nights is best at its simplest. An anonymous Iranian writer contributes The Tale in His Mind, which is plainly told – no props, no demonstration – by Lahcen Razzougui. He recounts the rubber bullets and baton charges of Tahrir Square that left him a corpse clutching a book. He hands a battered copy of A Thousand and One Nights to an audience member and asks for a paragraph, any paragraph. Each matters equally. Just like protestors. Just like people. Suddenly something real happens in the theatre and it’s more powerful than all the clever props combined.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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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