Thursday 19 February 2009

Unbroken - The Gate

[Written for]

There are plenty of problems with Unbroken, Natalie Abrahami’s dance’n’theatre staging of much of Alexandra Woods’ new adaptation of Schnitzler’s La Ronde.

The pre-show state involves sitting in front of the blacked-out stage with lights shining uncomfortably in your eyes listening to horribly insistent, repetitive minimalist clicks and bleeps. It actually makes you feel quite ill. Eventually they stop shining the lights in your eyes, turn the “music” down a bit, and dim spotlights come up on the faces of the two performers, Darren Ellis and Gemma Higginbotham. They perform the whole of the first scene – an encounter between a “Rock Star” and a married woman after a gig.

You all know La Ronde by now, yes? God knows you should do. It is the most over-adapted go-to destination for anyone who can’t think of their own structure for a play. Unbroken is the third La Ronde in London this year following Georgians at the Arcola and Joe DiPetro’s adaptation Fucking Men. And, Christ, there’s a fourth coming to the Riverside Studios in March. No doubt there’ll be revivals of The Blue Room and Sleeping Around after that.

The original depicts a series of ten sexual encounters between various members of fin-de-siecle Viennese society. They are identified by occupation, relationship status or sexual persona – whore, soldier, young wife, young husband, “little miss”, Count, etc – and at the end of each encounter, the previously unseen participant goes on to the next scene and a new partner. The result is both a cynical social commentary and an acknowledgement of taboo promiscuity and infidelity.

In Unbroken the sexual merry-go-round is reduced to six characters of each gender. The characters are identified by name and with the exception of a “Rock Star” are mostly defined by their relationships with a very woolly idea of their social relationships to one another. Moreover, by reducing the number of characters to six each way, the play totally loses the sense travelling through the life of a city. It virtually reduces its scope to an over-evolved “adultery in NW3” play.

There is a bigger problem at work here, however. In common with Hare’s The Blue Room, the male and female in each encounter are played by the same performers. Needless to say, this probably works best if both performers can offer a number of convincingly different personas so that each character they play seems sufficiently differentiated from the last. Failing this, as Higginbotham and Ellis both largely do, it would at least be something if both performers could reasonably convince as human beings.

Unfortunately Ellis lets the side down here too. Ok, that’s unfair, Ellis does come across as human, albeit the most crushed, asexual, insipid, sexually uncharismatic man you could imagine. Higginbotham is pretty, perky and fun so each encounter ends up looking like a man pleading needily with a woman well out of his league. Imagine Michael Rosen trying to get off with a crop-haired, boyish, younger Kristin Scott-Thomas – without even an ounce of wit or confidence to fall back on. Irrespective of the character she is playing, in every scene Higginbotham has to fight desperately hard not to look like a desperately bored young wife putting a brave face on a terrible mistake. How anyone is supposed to find it credible when the couples eventually do get it on is beyond me.

Which brings us to the “dance” bit of the show. Director Natalie Abrahami has chosen to, well, “illustrate” or, er, “interpret” the sex bit of each encounter with a bit of contemporary dance. Stop giggling, it’s a perfectly good idea. In theory. It was after all George Bernard Shaw who described dancing as “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire” (although contemporary dance about modern sexual practices might more fairly said to be the horizontal expression of a vertical desire). God knows, I’ve seen plenty of contemporary dance that has spoken volumes about sex, sexuality and sexual desire, sadly, this wasn’t it.

Ugo Dehaes’s choreography for Unbroken, however, seems to be suffering from performance anxiety. Too many expectations have been placed on it. It is timid and tentative, and it doesn’t really seem to know what it’s doing. On one hand, since these dances are explicitly *sex* there appears to have been an initial nervousness about whether they should “look like” sex or should seek to represent some more abstract sense of desire and pleasure. The result is a bland mish-mash of the mimetic and the interpretative - the mimesis looks tame, while the interpretation looks twee. It’s all a bit face-holdy and scented candles. Even when one character appears to rape his ex-girlfriend, the act itself looks a bit airbrushed.

Indeed, the overall feeling here is one of earnestness. Reading through Woods’s script afterwards, one notices that the parts excised from the script are often the parts where a character makes a sexually explicit reference. Unbroken looks like it’s been put together by a creative team who have never had great sex in their lives, or are too shy, intellectually dishonest or disapproving to admit it. As a result we get a bland sexless selection of scenes of unsexy people interspersed with dances about sexless sex. Granted the characters of La Ronde have a certain cynical listlessness about them, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the sex is necessarily desultory and stale. Moreover, the dances here don’t portray that either.

The choreography and design both have their moments, but would have been far better without the burdensome context placed around them, which they totally fail to live up to. This is a play about sex made by people who seem to have made so that they can show it to their parents and grandparents without embarrassment.
Photograph by Manuel Vason

Berlin - National Theatre

[Written for]

If I didn’t object to people saying what is and isn’t theatre, I’d be tempted to say Berlin isn’t theatre at all. Really, it’s more like of a lecture, or one of those “An Audience With...”s. Except this one has a director attached in the form of long-time Hare collaborator Stephen Daldry. And it’s got a set of sorts: a snazzy bar stool on a raised circular dais.

The subject of the talk is nominally Berlin. The real subject of the talk is David Hare and some of David Hare’s thoughts about Berlin, among other things. It is rather like someone wealthy, middle class and left-wing reading you their holiday diaries (Hare does in fact have the entire script on a clipboard) crossed with a staged advert for Hare’s adaptation of The Reader (also directed by Stephen Daldry).

The success of the show largely depends on how palatable/appealing you find the idea of David Hare speaking his mind to you. Live! There is a degree of self-importance, not to mention a dizzying sense of entitlement, which is pretty hard to stomach. Here is someone who has decided that his opinions are so worthwhile that he is going to charge people money to sit and listen to them for the better part of an hour. And this time he hasn’t even bothered turning his thoughts into a play. And he’s reading them himself.

This last decision is perhaps the most curious. David Hare’s stage persona is oddly suggestive of Alan Bennett in a wig taking the piss out of the idea of David Hare. Except that Hare is not a natural performer. He over-emphasises odd words. He comes down way too hard on punchlines. He often adopts a tone of voice, posture and facial expression that appears impossibly pained and self-righteous. He stares at us in the audience after he has made what he considers to be a profound point. It comes across as if he daftly believes he is being “confrontational”. Or that he is the first person to have spotted, for example, that Nazism wasn’t nice. On the other hand, he can also be quite affable, charming and witty. He has a nice line in self-deprecation, but one which is undercut by a much broader streak of thinking he’s definitely right about things and being impossibly smug to boot.

The central plank of Hare’s Berlin is that he doesn’t get the place as a city. His friends are all telling him how great it is, and how he should buy a flat in Kreuzberg, but he just isn’t feeling it. It’s not all he doesn’t get. The piece starts by him describing being booed by a German audience who had just watched one of his plays. Rarely have I felt more fondly toward the Germans. He goes on to describe the production in tones of mock horror – their set for the railway station he had written hadn’t looked anything like the actual railway station he meant! And it had had some youths on stage dressed in leather playing on a pinball machine in an oak-panelled waiting room! Quelle horreur! It sounded like a pretty good production to me, and Hare’s deadly, literalist objections only serve to make him sound like someone who doesn’t make much of an effort to *get* other ways of doing things.

He pootles around for a while talking about adapting The Reader, giving a few insights into his work and his thinking ("if you don't know how you'll adapt something immediately, you'll never know" is one such pearl of, uh, wisdom) and interspersing this with anecdotes from various visits he’s made to Berlin and accounts of key moments from Berlin’s post-war history. He’s probably at his funniest when talking about his attitude to actors (paraphrased: “yes, I know it’s in the book, but I’ve changed it, because a book is different to a film”), or relating funny things actors have said to him (one, on shooting Valkyrie: “I’m currently playing a Nazi officer in a film about the plot to assassinate David Bamber”).

In the end, he finally *does* get Berlin – at least to his satisfaction (and he’s David Hare so he’s always right, right?). Apparently it’s a place where groups of friends can hang out and chat. Hare thinks this is a shame. He misses young people being angry about things. Young people, he says, pretty much directly, ain’t what they used to be. Satisfied with this baffling conclusion, Hare heads off to the airport where he bumps into some of his friends in the departure lounge. He finds it convivial and nice and reflects that if he bought a place in Berlin he’d miss seeing his friends in the departure lounge as often.

In conclusion, David Hare seems to have turned into the kind of Kingsley Amis travel writer who uses other nations and cultures to narrow their horizons and confirm to themselves that they were right all along; exposure to other ideas and ways of doing things only serves to confirm this. Despite the good jokes (which is by no means all the jokes) and the sometimes likeable manner, I can’t help wishing I’d been in an audience of Germans booing at the end.
________________________________________Photograph by Catherine Ashmore.

Friday 13 February 2009

England People Very Nice - National Theatre

[Written for]

Richard Bean’s new play in the National’s Olivier Theatre is a very long, Epic-theatre comedy about racism. It kicks off in a detention centre where a disparate group of asylum seekers are putting on a devised piece about how England, specifically Bethnal Green, has welcomed successive waves of immigrants throughout its history. It is purportedly their play – albeit performed with the framing device removed – which forms vast majority of the show. Think Forty Years On meets Oh, What a Lovely War via Love Thy Neighbour and ‘Allo ‘Allo and you’ll be on the right tracks.

After a quick vignette to deal with the first millennia or so of British history, the piece starts in earnest with the arrival of French Huguenots – thrown out of their own country by the Catholics. They are followed a couple of hundred years/twenty minutes later by the rural Irish Catholics escaping the potato famine. They are followed by Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms.

Bean quickly sets up a kind of repeating pattern, the way that the French are initially received with dismay and alarm which escalates to ugly violence before they gradually become more and more integrated into the community, building churches and houses, marrying into the indigenous community and finally adopting English accents when the British go to war with France. When the Irish turn up, we see them express their outrage at these new immigrants. Similarly, when the Russian Jews arrive, the locals are once again initially resistant and prominent British Jews – wealthy conservatives like Rothschild – despairing of Russian Jewish anarchists. Having dealt with three hundred or so years in the first half, the second half offers a more detailed trot through to the present day, looking at Indian “lascar” seamen from the Merchant Navy and the growth of the Bangladeshi community around Spitalfields.

To maintain a bit of narrative drive beyond a simple historical sketch comedy, Bean centres much of the action around a pub with a kind of eternal landlady (Sophie Stanton – whose cries of “Facking Frogs!”, “Facking Micks!”, “Facking Yids!” herald the arrival of each new group) and her perky daughter (Michelle Terry), who at each point in history falls into bed with one of the immigrants – always played by Sacha Dhawan – in an ongoing romance through time.

Nick Hytner’s staging is characteristically assured, although given the huge rambling, rambunctious feel of the piece, his tendency toward polish has perhaps over-smoothed here, making it feel like a very West End take on rough theatre. The performances are strong, with a large multi-ethnic cast playing every wave of immigrants and the “indigenous” population, thus we have Elliot Levy playing a Palestinian Christian, black actors playing members of the National Front, and Asian actors playing Russian Jews.

The script is essentially a tissue of racial epithets combined with some broad, stereotypical portrayals of the various groups of minorities. It’s pretty robust stuff, but is presented in such a way that makes it feel silly to take offence. This is, after all, as multi-ethnic a cast as you could wish for all mucking about and doing silly accents together in front of a similarly mixed audience. On the other hand, the play’s Brechtian scope and structure – a kind of Mother Courage and The Other – suggest that we are watching something designed to illustrate a point. This underlying message possibly requires a bit more unpacking, however.

The way that the plot unfolds, with its focus on love being the answer to all society’s ills, seems to back up the claim made by various characters that immigrant communities are finally accepted and part of English society when they have started intermarrying – until then, by implication, they are aliens. Another, more depressing, reading is available which suggests that immigrants are finally integrated into English society when they are racist about the next wave of immigrants. Bean doesn’t have a lot of time for the conflicting claims of various world religions. Repeatedly espoused is the maxim “The only heaven you’ll ever have is here.” (Answered with the oft-repeated running gag, “What, Bethnal Green?”)

It is interesting that Bean doesn’t really reflect on the qualitative differences between white Christian immigrants from foreign countries and those between different world religions – more traditional wings of which favour marrying within their faith – and immigrants with different skin colours. The play doesn’t seem to have much time for multi-culturalism, in the sense of separate communities maintaining their own ways of life and not joining in with the more general mongrel melting pot that constitutes the “English”. It reads mostly as an argument for integration – the briskly improvised invention of the Chicken Tikka Masala can be seen as an example of this process at its best, with both sides adapting and benefiting from cultural exchange.

It is interesting to note the somewhat uneven treatment of the various immigrant cultures. The French are dispatched quickly as stock stereotypes. The Irish contingent are shown indulging in every behaviour of which they stand accused by the bigots – pigs under the arm, green suits, alcoholism, wife beating and incest – up to the point where a one-eyed baby is born out of incestuous union. The portrayal of the Jews is warm and affectionate, as is the portrayal of the Indian “lascars”. Less sympathetic and affectionate is the portrayal of Brick Lane’s current Bangladeshi community. The older generation is depicted as likeable enough, but the youths turn from violent, confrontational drug-dealers and muggers to becoming radicalised Islamists in the wake of 9/11.

Sadly, this is as far as history has got, and Bean does not indulge in clairvoyance. It is interesting that at the close of the play, the eternal pub landlady, her Irish/Jewish daughter and the daughter’s Muslim lover – with his extended family in tow – decide to decamp from Bethnal Green to Redbridge (a running joke throughout).

As such, the end of the play feels half like an apocalyptic warning: Run! This time it’s different! The Islamists are coming to get us! – And half like a case being well rested: If we learn from the lessons of history, we can see that we have absolutely nothing to worry about. From what has gone before, it does seem as if Bean’s outlook is pessimistic. That Islamic Fundamentalism is somehow more threatening than Irish Catholicism, French Protestantism or Russian Jewish Anarchism. Indeed, he breaks his falling-in-love structure to demonstrate the point. Radical Islamists, he suggests, cannot fall in love with a non-Muslim. I’m sure a Radical Islamist would agree, but it seems a shame that Bean allows their propaganda to derail his rather sweet thesis that integration is not only possible but also inevitable.

As plays go, it’s moderately entertaining – hugely so, if you’re a fan of crude humour – although its three-hour length outstays its welcome. It’s got a lot of jokes, mostly of the broad variety – swearing plays a key role here. There are some sweet sentimental moments – a misty eyed cockerney knees-up in the pub during WWII is unashamed rose-tinted nostalgia – but overall the noisy humour and the cavalcade of racist characters and mob violence makes for a strangely dispiriting evening.

Photographs by Johan Persson - left to right: SACHA DHAWAN (Mushi), PAUL CHEQUER (Hugo), MICHELLE TERRY (Deborah)

Thursday 12 February 2009

The Stone - Royal Court

It would be premature to compare the Court’s riches with those at the National before I see their German offering and big-multi-culturalism-critique tomorrow, but I don’t think it’s too cynical to remark on an awfully neat synchronicity. Meanwhile, I can only report that the Court tonight felt like pretty much the most vibrant, sought-after culture-spot in town. God help us if there is actually some kind of theatrical renaissance taking place in the midst of this recession going on under our noses; papers will have to lay on more critics...

In the past week, the Royal Court has opened three plays which, either overtly or otherwise, have a major world religion at their heart. In reductive terms: Alia Bano’s Shades deals primarily with Islam – specifically Islam as it is lived and experienced by different stripes of British Muslim; Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children comments on Israeli Jews and indirectly on their Palestinian and Islamic neighbours; meanwhile, at the heart of Marius von Mayenburg’s The Stone is an exploration of Germany’s ongoing attempts to deal with its horrific crimes against the Jews under the Nazis.

Von Mayenburg’s script is a fluid, kaleidoscopic view of sixty years of German history presented in a stark white box. Its six inhabitants – each depicted as if caught at a specific moment in their lives – interact with each other in scenes showing key moments when their lives intersect.

The narrative revolves around the ownership of a particularly desirable residence in a Dresden suburb: Heidrun (Helen Schlesinger) is an early-middle-aged expectant mother in the late-‘70s, Hannah (Loo Brearley) is her daughter in her teens, Witha (pronounced ‘Vita’ – played by a particularly excellent Linda Bassett) is Heidrun’s elderly mother in the ‘90s, whose husband, Wolfgang (Jonathan Cullen), is shown as the middle-aged man who died in 1945. Got that? The remaining two characters are Stephanie, an East German (Amanda Drew) who lived in the house during the DDR-era, when Heidrun and Witha had escaped to the West, and Mieze (Justine Mitchell), one half of the Jewish couple who own of the house from whom Wolfgang and Witha buy the house in 1935, two years after Hitler’s rise to power.

Part of the fascination of the piece lies in the way in which von Mayenburg continually shifts scenes. With no lighting change or warning characters will suddenly be talking to one another twenty years in the past or future, those not present – or even born – suddenly freeze out of the action. Added to this is an unreliable narration at the heart of the story. Our faith in the grandmother’s account of her and her husband’s acquisition of the house and their actions and allegiances during the war is slowly eroded by our encountering scenes in which her version of their past is shown to have falsified crucial information.

Gradually we are shown that what on the surface appeared to be the triumphant, happy return to a family home is in fact a damning indictment of the lies that a nation has told itself in order to remain sane - the opening of the question of how much those lied-to even believe and how much is simply wanting to believe the best. It suggests a Germany where everyone is appalled by Nazi atrocities, and yet where everyone has grandparents of whom they can be proud for standing up to the Nazis. It is a striking, and dramatically astute way of dramatising a nation refusing to take responsibility for its past, and in doing so continuing to inflict damage on itself.

Ramin Gray’s production of this gorgeously fractured text is a masterclass in chilly minimalism. It trusts the audience to pick up on the way in which the piece operates, never once spelling things out, nor resorting to dumb underlining. For my money it could have done with a bit more willingness to disrupt itself. Despite all its postdramatic cool, it still displays an oddly British hermetic-ness. I quite wanted to see more mess, more viscera, more elements from outside the text brought in as a commentary - everyone in the cast suddenly stopping what they were doing and dancing to David Hasslehof singing Looking for Freedom as the Berlin wall was pulled down, or something. That said, what is there is beautifully realised – recalling Katie Mitchell’s The City seen at the Court last year. This is a terrifically intelligent play, beautifully presented, with an outstanding cast. It is a continuing pleasure that the Court is prepared to commit to main stage productions of international work of this calibre, and that there is an audience out there for such work. Long may it continue.

Seven Jewish Children - Royal Court

Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children is pretty much as blunt as The Stone is sharp; substituting an hour of subtle moral inquiry for ten minutes of what could easily be read as simplistic moralising. This is probably unfair, although I guarantee that there’ll be a fair number of reviews that will advance this thesis. Against those will be ranged another few which applaud their perception of Churchill’s political position with nary a thought for what they might have actually witnessed in the theatre.

The structure of Seven Jewish Children is as follows: there are seven scenes; each alluding to a chapter in the history of the state of Israel (apart from the first, which is set in the Holocaust). Each contain a number of lines – not allotted in the text to specific speakers, á la Attempts on Her Life/4.48 Psychosis/pool (no water) – most beginning with the words “Tell her...” or “Don’t tell her...” – which nominally imagine Jewish or Israeli parents, grandparents or concerned friends discussing what to say to an unseen young-sounding daughter about the crisis through which they are currently living. It begins in the Holocaust with an Anne Frank-like hiding from the Nazis “Tell her it’s a game. / Tell her it’s important to be quiet.” and ends up in what we can only assume is Churchill’s take on the current Israeli/Palestinian conflict (or is it a ceasefire at the moment?) in Gaza.

It is this last scene which is most likely to draw criticism. It contains the only lengthy speech of the play and one which offers the least sympathetic imaginable characterisation of Israeli aggression (“Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army. [...] Tell her there’s dead babies, did she see babies? Tell her she’s got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them [...] Tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out...” – this isn’t especially selective quotation, it’s a pretty fair sample). As the piece draws on, the “her” in question starts to sound less like a child and more like Israel itself – as if the citizens are discussing what they can tell themselves about what they are doing. It moves from comforting a child to massaging news values.

Churchill does include some of Israel’s justifications for its actions, but never in a way that understands the psychology of how it must feel to live in a country surrounded by geographical neighbours who are on record saying they’d quite like to see the Jews driven into the sea; to live in a nation formed after the only attempt at wholesale mechanised genocide in history; a Holocaust routinely denied by their enemies.

It feels as if Churchill’s compassion has been blinded by her pacifism. Instead of walking a mile in the other man’s shoes (in this instance the other man being Israel), she has been profoundly upset by the use of massive military force. She sees Israel as a bully and an aggressor rather than as a very small state surrounded by political enemies, which is under constant threat of anihilation. This isn’t to say that the recent attacks on Gaza are desirable. However, in most other instances, liberalism (for want of a better, or indeed accurate, word) has made a virtue of at least seeking to understand even those for whom it has no sympathy. Count up the number of speculatively “understanding plays” about, say, the Moors Murderers, the children who killed Jamie Bulger, paedophiles, etc. and compare them with the number of plays that offer any speculative understanding of the Israeli position. It’s a bit of an embarrassment, isn’t it?

More worrying is the fact that the Court has unwittingly made a double bill of The Stone and Seven Jewish Children. Played in the same space, on the same set, with only a half-hour interval (and with the latter piece thrown in free), the Court has set itself up for unwonted accusations. Put baldly, following a play about the illegitimate dispossession of Jewish homeowners in Nazi Germany with a piece about the state of Israel sets up a disastrous set of inferences. It could – and I stress *could* - look like the theatrical equivalent of those flags waved around on anti-war marches which replace the Star of David on the Israeli flag with a swastika.

Nothing in Seven Jewish Children questions the right of the state of Israel to exist. It clearly wears its compassion on its sleeve and, I am sure, is a plea for moderation, tolerance, dialogue and peace on both sides. I have no doubt Caryl Churchill deplores the suicide-bombing of cafes and rocket attacks on civilian homes just as much as somewhat scattergun “surgical” strikes on Hamas strongholds inconveniently or cynically located in the heart of civilian populations.

I worry, however, that in staging only Jewish characters, both sympathetic and unsympathetic – excellently played by an entirely Jewish cast, it should probably be noted – that this addition to the vast and vexed conversation on the Israel/Palestine conflict leaves itself open to unwelcome and, as it turns out, unjustified accusations of casual left-wing anti-Semitism.

Like Churchill’s last play Drunk Enough To Say I Love You, the playwright’s politics are worn so baldly on the play’s sleeve, that the ersatz experimentalism of the piece’s form is lost in a mire of lecturing. We all get it. We’re not being made to work at complexity, we’re being told that something is bad. Ultimately, Seven... is a very quick theatrical trot through an opinion most of us have heard rehearsed a thousand times before. If Churchill really wanted to shake us up, she’d be putting the Israelis' point of view. In the current climate, that really would be revolutionary.
Photo by Keith Pattison

Shades - Royal Court

What’s great about Shades is that you leave the theatre, having sat through two hours of astutely argued, dense, issued-based theatre, feeling like you’ve just stepped out of a Richard Curtis Film. Welcome to State of the Nation’s first rom-com. Shades is a neat title, too. Centred on ideas about Muslim identity within Great Britain, the word’s multiple resonances refract off every available surface that the play has to offer.

Sabrina (Stephanie Street) is a Bridget-Jones-y despairing singleton with a great career, a gay best friend and enormous sex appeal who has only one problem – being a Muslim, she can’t find a boyfriend/potential life partner able to accept her current lifestyle or aspirations.

Enter her Muslim GBF Zain (an adorable Navin Chowdhry), who is organising a series of fundraising events in aid of Gaza. In a petty act of revenge after Sabrina is late to an initial meeting, he teams her up with the somewhat more devout Reza (the, again adorable, Amit Shah), envisaging that the pair will rub each other up the wrong way.

As it turns out, Reza is intelligent, attractive, witty and acute, while the attraction of Sabrina’s confidence, brains and beauty is not lost on Reza. Cue crisis as Sabrina’s somewhat *modern* lifestyle sets Reza on a crash-course with his far more observant, conservative family as the two find themselves impossibly drawn to one another.

Alia Bano’s script is a pretty uneven affair. There are some slightly heavy-handed passages of description, exposition and argumentation. These are more than relieved, however, by her wit, intelligence and a joke-per-minute count that would put many sit-coms to shame. This buoyancy is, for the most part, maintained by Nina Raine’s snappy direction and an excellent cast. Despite the piece’s slightly naturalistic bent, the performers manage to maintain a real sense of liveness throughout. There’s a kind of in-the-moment-ness and natural-ness which brings the whole thing alive. At the same time, there is some pretty sloppy blocking that sometimes finds one watching someone’s back blocking your view of everyone else on stage – and no, I don’t find this “vital and exciting, risk-taking”; I find it galling. Especially when the acting on the other side of the back is so uniformly great.

Given other recent controversies concerning plays dealing with major world religions, it is surprising Shades has not generated more protest. It is, after all, a pretty brave piece of work for a (presumably) Muslim author, with a pretty neat line in iconoclasm. Besides having a gay Muslim character who lives with his white, non-Muslim lover, there is a scene in which – angered by what he perceives as Sabrina’s increasing conservatism as she falls in love with Reza – Zain dons hijāb with niqāb and performs lap dance moves. It feels deeply subversive and confrontational – both in the wolrd of the play, and as something for a writer to have created.

What’s interesting is how much like a Shakespeare Shades feels. Essentially, it’s Much Ado About Nothing with a bit of Othello chucked in for good measure – Reza has a nasty best friend, Ali, who shit-stirs like the best Don Johns or Iagos going. What’s fascinating is how much *being part of a family* raises these Shakespeare comparisons.

Modern Britons have, for the most part, done a good job of cutting family ties. Sabrina is a prime example of a modern, single woman for whom her close friends are her family. Most young people can identify with her position. What Shades offers is a rare insight into the lives of those living in Britain for whom family is more important than love. At one point, Reza suggests that the reason he didn’t reject Islam, or overt expression of his faith in the wake of 9/11 wasn’t so much idealism as his British tendency to side with the underdog. In Britain, the underdog was Islam, so his Britishness made him more Muslim. It a neat expression of a paradox that summarises the play. A play which doesn’t seek to resolve these intricate questions so much as raise them, leave them standing, and see what happens...

Tuesday 3 February 2009