Thursday 12 February 2009

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...


Anonymous said...

I had more problems than you with the set-piece argumentation in the play, but agree with you about its tone and smarts. I especially like the fact that even describing the characters as "British Muslims" is perhaps setting up misleading assumptions by implicitly foregrounding the "Muslim" bit too much. The Britishness and the Islam aren't in conflict, it's not a matter of either at the expense of the other, as is so often portrayed as being the case: both are fully present and immediate. What I find slightly odd is that, with Britishness so fully present in all the characters, the published text still feels it necessary to designate them tersely as "Pakistani", "Bengali" or "Pathan"...?

Anonymous said...

I loved this play so much, and I really didn't expect to. I thought what it did brilliantly was convey an experience of the kind of social pressure which young people who have been brought up within a religious faith face when it comes to choosing partners and thinking about their sexuality.

The experiences of these characters aren't unique to Muslims, but are a reflection of living within any tight-knit community with a very defined set of values and expectations. I'm not a Muslim, but I totally identified with them.

I was a bit disappointed at the end, because I felt the decision that the main character made should have been left open. I didn't want her to go back to the man. Maybe some people saw that as a happy ending. I saw it as a compromise.