Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Black Album - The Oxford Playhouse

The Black Album
Writer: Hanif Kureishi
Director: Jatinder Verma
Reviewer: Joshua Rey

What was the big historical event of twenty years ago? Yeah, yeah, some wall or other – but that was about the past. What was the moment that defined the future we now live in? Arguably, it was March 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini emitted a fatwa against Salman Rushdie on account of his novel The Satanic Verses; the first time the clash between radical Islam and liberal values got onto the front pages.

Hanif Kureishi’s new play, now touring in a TARA Arts co-production with the National Theatre, is set in that febrile and transgressive time. It is the story of Shahid Hasan (played by Jonathan Bonnici), from a Pakistani family but born and bred in Sevenoaks, who comes to London to study and write. He meets Riaz (Alexander Andreou) and his group of fundamentalist Muslim activists; and he gets to know Deedee (Tanya Franks), a radical liberal lecturer in post-colonial literature. Shahid oscillates between these two poles, never quite finding his own voice.

The play is Hanif Kureishi’s adaptation of his 1995 novel of the same name. It’s a pity Kureishi, who writes tight scripts, couldn’t have written a completely new play on the topic. Here, there is clearly a large back story for Shahid and the others which he doesn’t show us. As a result their motives are hard to take seriously and their personal transformations come off as capricious. Worse, after twenty years of caricature we already have stereotypes to fit these people into. It’s an effort of will not to succumb to reading Riaz and Deedee as the Mad Mullah and Guardian-reading Leftie from Central Casting.

There is also a bit too much beating over the head with Message. Sometimes I felt the author was sitting next to me, nudging me in the ribs and saying “Geddit?” This is a play about identity. Well, I already guessed that. I didn’t need the second act to end with Deedee shouting “You’ve got to decide, Shahid, who really are your people!”

It’s telling that the most enjoyable performances (and they are very enjoyable) are from the supporting cast. These are vivid knockabout characters who can afford to be two-dimensional, partly because the audience doesn’t need to identify with them, and partly because they’re so highly coloured and well voiced they’re a joy to watch anyway. Robert Mountford as Shahid’s brother Chili, a flamboyant gangster, is first rate. Shereen Martineau as Chili’s estranged wife Zulma is particularly good (and she doubles as Tahira, one of Riaz’s entourage).

This is where much of the best dialogue is. Released from the obligation to convey the Message they are more enjoyable to listen to, but sometimes with a sting in the tail. The leads are unable to resist the lure of the pulpit. Zulma never preaches, but often pops out a pithy double-edged observation from the corner of her mouth without noticing it – “are we still colonial after so long, post- or not?”... “religion is for the benefit of the masses, not for brainboxes like you”.

Alas, the show as a whole cannot resist the urge to deal in Message; and surely the thing we learn from that time is that it’s a bad idea to over-simplify. The play ends with one of Riaz’s boys begging forgiveness from Shahid for what they are going to do and then a broad hint about suicide bombings. But to jump from the fatwa to 7/7 is to sacrifice understanding for Message. It’s not that simple.
Runs until Sat 14th Nov
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