Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Black Album, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

The Black Album
Book: Hanif Kureishi
Adaptor: Hanif Kureishi
Director: Jatinder Verma
Reviewer: Nicola Harrison

'Something had begun to stir in the late 80's which has had a profound effect on our world, and which we are still trying to come to terms with.'
(Hanif Kureishi, 2009)

Written to mark the 20th anniversary of Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses', this play identifies the realisation in the 80's that Britain had changed from a monocultural to a multiracial society. It was to the point of no return. In this humorous stage adaptation, the play enables you to challenge how the events of 1989 have formed todays society, namely fundamentalism against liberalism. The title refers to 'The Black Album' by Prince also released in the late 80's. The press referred to his album as 'The Funk Bible'. It was in fact a reactionary statement by Prince that his music could appeal to the black pop audience. The controversial black cover design had no printed title or artist name. This vacant black space represents the global conflict that ensued 'The Satanic Verses' following Ayatollah Khomeini's infamous fatwa.

Kureishi's 'The Black Album' can be described as a cocktail of hedonism, drug culture, book burning and Muslim fundamentalism in the late 80's, London. Shahid is a young Asian student in London. He joins a group of anti-racists but it's 1989, the year of the fatwa. As Shahid begins a hedonistic affair with his lecturer his radical Muslim acquaintances try to discourage him from the influences of the West. The play explores many ideas, particularly related to the power of literature. History shows that books cannot be repressed. As Milton said, 'He who destroys a good book destroys reason itself.' The idea of slaughtering reason for thinking is the conflict that Shahid has to struggle with as he battles between his love for new literature and what he really stands for.

The set for this adaptation, designed by Tim Hatley, was sparse and effective, enabling the focus to be on the actors and their performance. A projected visual backdrop created effective scene changes and props were minimal, but used creatively. The costumes, designed by Claudia Mayer were authentic showing the diversity of 80's fashion in a multiracial society. Due to the limitations of a raw set, it is notable the lighting, designed by Jvan Morandi, worked particularly well in the scenes set outside. Dual lighting effects highlighted the actors in the foreground while background cast were blacked out. Under Jatinder Verma's direction, this play essentially highlights the diversity of 80's culture through character. Whilst trying to bring together the many different facets of a complex society, 'The Black Album' allows us to be a part of the bitter conflict as we witness these inner city disturbances.

The cast from Tara Arts and the National Theatre gave strong performances. Shereen Martineau and Robert Mountford can be commended for their dual roles, Glyn Pritchard for adding humour and Jonathan Bonnici for the continuity of his leading performance.

Overall although the play marks a turning point in the history of Western racism, as a performance, it was neither widely compelling or hugely amusing. For that reason there was an element of disappointment. However, it gave you reason to think. Put into its political and historical context, it is still a necessary viewing.

Runs until Saturday 24th October
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