TAITMAIL Theatre, large and small, where the twain must meet
Twenty-five years ago Ayub Khan-Din’s East is East was a ground-breaking piece of theatre, bringing to British audiences with dark humour the torments of tradition versus contemporary life for so many British Pakistani families.
It won multiple awards and became a moderately successful Film Four movie, directed by the Irish director Damien O’Donnell. The trailer for the film describes it as “a comedy with attitude”, but it portrayed a brutal and reactionary patriarch unable to come to terms with the anglicised outlook of his children, a conflict involving arranged marriage which destroys the family. The many children have adopted English names, so that Nazir becomes Nigel, Abdul is Arthur and Tariq is Tony. That kind of attitude.
The title is an ironic quote from Kipling’s famous poem whose first line reads “Oh East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet", an unsubtle reference to colonialism which in today’s zeitgeist sends up a very light for decolonisers. It’s interesting that Khan-Din’s 2010 sequel, West is West, which shifts the action to Pakistan, flopped.
Well, East is East is back. Iqbal Khan is directing a new version in a co-production by Birmingham Rep, where it originated in1996, and the National Theatre, and it will reopen the Lyttleton in October, the NT’s director Rufus Norris announced this week.
Tara Theatre’s new artistic director, who also announced his new season this week, wonders why.
For Abdul Shayek, in his first year at what was until now Tara Arts, thinks theatres have become stuck in a cliché in presenting British Asian drama in the last quarter century. “At what point do we move away from telling stories about terrorism, forced marriages or honour killing? When do we start telling the stories about love and dreams and aspirations? There's a whole bunch of really interesting artists waiting to give voice to stories out there - why aren’t they being commissioned?”
There is a new play in the NT season by an Indian writer, The Father and the Assassin about the killing of Gandhi, but Anupama Chandrasekhar is an established playwright and former NT writer-in-residence. The NT has made plangent statements about its responsibility to diversity, not least with the appointment of Clint Dyer as deputy artistic director, and there is much to be savoured at the Southbank in the next few months. The launch of National Theatre Together was also announced this week in which the NT will collaborate with theatre makers and communities up and down the country in a campaign that “cements the NT’s commitment to the people of this country”.
Entirely admirable and responsible if a little vague, but committing to new South Asian writing in a period of recovery from what could have been a fatally ruinous year of lockdown is too risky, it seems, and even established writers with South Asian roots like Tanika Gupta are seeking professional refuge in radio.
South Asia is a vast area covering around 2bn square miles, from Nepal to the Maldives and taking in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and about the same number in terms of population, a bit more than a quarter of the world. The Office of National Statistics has difficulty defining who we’re talking about in terms of the British citizenry whose roots are in South Asia, but it’s something like 10%, full, as Shayek says, of stories.
And the assumption is that only South Asian audiences will be interested in South Asian drama, which may have been true when East is East was written but, maybe thanks to East is East, is no longer. “There are so many stories that need to be told and for which we know there’s an audience, but the writers aren’t being given a platform. That has to change”. Even so, he says, the South Asian element in Britain is at least well-heeled enough to be able to afford a ticket to the theatre, and is eager to buy it.
When Tara Arts began in 1977 it was the first British Asian theatre, its founder Jatinder Verma inspired by the murder of an 18-year-old Sikh student in Southall. When Verma stood down last year after 44 years he wondered what had materially changed in society in that time. “If I can see myself in the white person, can the white person see me in their own heart?” he posed. “I think at the moment, one has to say, well no, they can’t”.
Shayek’s mission is to help change hearts by taking his theatre out of the purpose-built playhouse Verma acquired for Tara in 2016 and into the community, the footprint of his first season which will see audiences walking around Wandsworth armed with podcasts on their phones to learn the stories of Covid victims - white and black as well as brown - in the places they knew.
Yet still there is racial violence on the streets, and it’s growing again. Last Friday was the anniversary of the death of that student, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, for which two youths were jailed for four years for manslaughter, not murder, with the judge Neil Lawson entoning that he didn’t believe the crime was racially motivated.
“It’s – what?– 45 years almost to the day since the murder and we’re still having the same debate” Shayek says. “So clearly nothing’s moved forward.”