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All the world’s a stage

<em>Brian Logan</em> meets Lisa Goldman, who is bringing an eclectic international vision to the Soh

Theatre is a left-wing conspiracy, right? The British stage is a den of pinkos bent on subverting the social order? That’s certainly what we’re led to believe – even the Observer and the Independent have recently run articles calling for more right-wing plays. But that is not how everyone sees it. “There’s a lot of right-wing people in theatre,” says Lisa Goldman, artistic director of the Soho Theatre. “And it’s very rare that theatre stands up to the authorities. It tends to be satisfied picking up the crumbs thrown down to it. Its attitude is: let’s not rock the boat; let’s be pragmatic; let’s make this work.”
Goldman likes rocking boats. She champions drama “that destabilises you, that makes you think differently about what’s going on”. Prior to her appointment, Soho was known for more or less conventional plays by first-time writers, which would not frighten (and which, indeed, actively courted) the TV and film industries just beyond the theatre’s doors. Goldman has transformed the venue, making it a home to radical international drama, where exiled Iraqi authors hobnob with the dissenting Belarus Free Theatre (banned in its home country), where a Gen-X Polish wunderkind gets her British premiere and where a troupe of Anglo-German performance artists (Gob Squad), renowned across Europe, is given a rare UK outing.
That does not surprise anyone who knows Goldman – who previously ran the politicised Red Room company, and who from 2001 was active in the establishment of Artists Against the War. The surprise was her appointment to Soho in the first place. For all the lip-service paid to “vision” and “ambition”, mainstream theatres usually place their artistic leadership in the safest possible hands.
Artistic directors “tend to work their way up through the Establishment”, says Goldman, who joined Soho Theatre in 2006. “But I’d come from the fringe. And then there’s the politics of my work.” Contrary to what some believe, in Britain belligerent left-wingery is not usually consonant with running a major stage.
Goldman’s simple idea, she says, was to make Soho a theatre for Soho. “The area is full of migrants and subcultures. I’m interested in what Soho is, what it means to people.” But her focus is wider than W1. “I’ve grown up in a London full of different cultures and many different ways of doing things,” she says. “I wanted a theatre that talked to London more specifically – but London as an international community. Because, if all you’re doing is mining one narrow seam of white middle-class writers, you’re not going to get the best art that’s out there, are you?”
It’s a philosophy that led directly to last season’s A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians by the Polish enfant terrible Dorota Maslow­ska; and to the hit Baghdad Wedding by Hassan Abdulrazzak.
Usually, a UK theatre might programme one such “minority” play each season. Goldman stuffs her schedule with them. Her most recent and next productions are an Anglo-Korean first play and an import by the Swedish-Tunisian novelist/playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri. These, says Goldman, will be hard sells – but they were preceded by Steve Thompson’s Roaring Trade, a hit (and timely) comedy about banking. Goldman stoutly defends her ability to balance the books – “my launch season did better box office than Soho’s ever had” – but admits that her programming is high-risk. “It takes time to build an audience for this work, and to accept that they may not be conventional theatregoers. They might be an indie film audience; they might be going to galleries. But they’d be into this work if they saw it.”
Their next opportunity will be Khemiri’s Invasion!, which opens at Soho after productions in Norway, Germany and France. The playwright is a cause célèbre in Sweden, where his first novel, One Eye Red, shocked the literary world, became 2004’s bestselling paperback and was made into a film. Invasion! is a reaction to that success. “I wanted to write about how words are closely related to how we construct identities,” Khemiri says, on the phone from Stockholm. “I felt I had lost the power of defining what my novel was about. So many people talked about it; so many people imposed their vision of the world on to my words.”
Traditionalists were angry at the mongrel Swedish Khemiri used to narrate the novel. “I got a lot of letters from racists,” he says. “Many of them had spelling mistakes. I would correct them and send them back.” He also flummoxed literary critics, who “had a hard time linking my writing to post-colonial theoretics”. Sweden wanted Khemiri to fit its profile of a Middle Eastern writer, but he won’t be pinned down. “Many people would like me to ‘choose sides’ and call myself one thing or another,” he says. “But my work is about questioning those simplifications. And that’s a very universal issue right now in contemporary Europe.”
A sleeper hit in the Swedish capital, where it ran for two years, Invasion! is a freewheeling, rug-pulling act of theatrical impiety. It revolves around a mysterious character or characters called Abulkasem – whose identity shifts between refugee, terrorist or goofy seducer, depending on who is describing him. In one striking scene, an interpreter falsely translates the testimony of a powerless immigrant to make him fit her anti-Islamic prejudice. Khemiri reports with amazement that “audiences are so inclined to believe the interpreter. This tendency to search for things that underline our vision of the world is one of the main themes in the play.”
That tendency is what Goldman seeks to subvert at Soho. “I’m interested in appealing to people who have got a curiosity about what’s going on in the world,” she says, “and who are prepared to take huge imaginative leaps to see the world differently.” Theatre, she believes, should be bolder: she ends our interview by demanding a government bailout of the arts (“because it would cost fuck all”) and forecasting a rise in radical theatre as hard times intensify.
“If we’re going to have mass unemployment, if the UK is going the way of Iceland – that’s so major that, if theatre were just to dish out same old, same old, how on earth could it continue to justify its place in the culture?”
“Invasion!” is at the Soho Theatre, London W1, until 28 March. Details:

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd