A woman wearing a hijab walks onto the stage, cradling a baby, singing an old song from Pakistan. She puts the baby on a metal table and wraps it in a shroud (kafan). The baby is dead. Ayesha is the funeral director. Such a reversal of expectations is typical of Hannah Hauer-King’s production of Iman Qureshi’s Papatango prize-winning new play. Muslim characters are rarely represented on UK stages, even rarer still with the depth and complexity that Qureshi grants her characters.
The Funeral Director is a beautifully-crafted realist play. Qureshi’s writing and Amy Jane Cook’s set immerse the audience in the play world. The stage is divided in two: the homely and cluttered front room where Zeyd and Ayesha receive living clients, and the sterile back room where Ayesha and Zeyd prepare the bodies. Evocative details include peeling ceiling tiles, quotations from the Quran on the wall, an ornamental tissue box, and a plate of custard cremes. The traverse staging makes the funeral home into a crucible. There is a claustrophobia; as it is a family business and Zeyd and Ayesha live above the shop, there is rarely a chance to leave, unless it is to pick up a corpse from the local hospital. The staging could also reflect Zeyd’s sense that they are under increased scrutiny as Muslims, both from within their community and society at large, when their funeral home hits the press.
Ayesha, in a subtle performance by Aryana Ramkhalawon, is increasingly uneasy with her marriage to Zeyd (Maanuv Thiara). When he asks when they will have children, pointing out that it’s been five years and his family keep asking, she prevaricates. Later it is revealed that Ayesha has been avoiding sex. Their marriage is put under even more pressure by the fallout from turning away a white man (Tom) who wants to arrange a funeral for his male Muslim partner. Homosexuality, Zeyd later says, is ‘haram’ (forbidden, sinful) in Islam. Tom sues them for discrimination. In the kind of coincidence that is only justifiable in a realist play, Ayesha has reconnected with an old school friend, Janey, a human rights lawyer and lesbian. Janey, understandably, refuses to take the case. However, in reconsidering her views, Ayesha realises something about herself.
There’s no way of writing about The Funeral Director without revealing its biggest plot twist: Ayesha is a lesbian. In terms of the structure of the play, she takes a frustratingly long amount of time to come out, after it has become clear that the play is going this way. But perhaps this is unfair. If you’ve grown up believing that homosexuality is a sin and you would be ostracised from your community, you would find it difficult to come out. Even if you haven’t had that, coming out can still be messy and complicated and painful. It can feel like a massive dramatic moment in your life, like you’re revealing a part of your self you’ve never told anyone. This is Ayesha’s coming out. My coming out was disappointingly undramatic (but to have an undramatic coming out is, of course, a privilege). After you have done it once, you realise that coming out is not a one-time thing and it can get quite banal with practice. But, before you tell someone, there is still that jump in the throat: ‘What if they don’t accept me?’
It is wearing to hear a debate about whether or not your existence is sinful. Qureshi’s script captures the human cost of a debate that can never be objective. Tom’s boyfriend Ahad committed suicide; the lack of acceptance by his family, it is implied, may have been a contributing factor. However, Qureshi is careful never to play into the stereotype of Muslims vs ‘British values’. Janey’s mother refused to accept her daughter’s sexuality; intolerance is evenly distributed.
I would have liked to have had more of an insight into Ayesha’s mind. It is hard to convey repression onstage. There is little sense of Ayesha’s desire towards women, only her lack of desire towards her husband. The play risks suggesting that Ayesha realising she is gay comes not from within herself but from her conversations with Tom and Janey, who are white, non-Muslim and comfortably out. When Ayesha comes out to Zeyd, she echoes what Tom told her Ahad believed – the compatibility of homosexuality and Islam: ‘The Allah I believe in. He’s good. He’s kind. Isn’t he? He wouldn’t make me like this, love like this, only to condemn it. To make these feelings I have – I have always had – to make them a sin. That would be a cruel god, Zeyd. And my Allah is not cruel’. I wish Ahad had been alive in the play to tell her this directly. Yet Ayesha’s life does not end. There is excitement, promise, hope for her. A positive representation of a queer Muslim woman. I want to know what happens next.