How to make your PhD like an R&D

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Rehearsal room

In January, director Charlotte Vickers, producer Emily Davis and I were lucky enough to get Arts Council funding for a research and development week on my new play Andromeda and Me. Charlotte and I spent a week workshopping a draft of the play and creating new material with actors Rosie Gray and Nigarish Khan. It was probably both the most intense and most enjoyable writing experience I’ve ever had. As I emerged from the cocoon of the imaginary world we’d created together with a far stronger play and a clearer sense of direction, I started to wonder whether I could run my PhD – specifically the writing element – like an R&D.

This post also owes a massive debt to Academic Writing Group, run by Alice Kelly, and the Baillie-Gifford writing partnerships scheme at TORCH Oxford, which have transformed my academic writing habits this year.

Prepare

One of the reasons the R&D was so productive, was that Charlotte and I had spent a year and a half working together on the project and I’d written two drafts of the play. This meant that we knew each other well and trusted each other’s creative judgement. And we knew the play well enough to articulate exactly what we were trying to explore and find out from the R&D. Similarly, when I go to Academic Writing Group or plan a PhD writing session with my writing partner, I like to prepare by doing my reading/ planning in advance, so I’m just writing during that time.

It’s a working draft

Sometimes I feel like I am endlessly redrafting my PhD in response to my supervisor’s comments, and it will never be finished. Which as a perfectionist I have found very hard to adjust to. I went in to the R&D with a draft I wasn’t completely happy with and I was convinced that the actors would think I was a terrible writer because of it. However, not being overly attached to that draft meant that we were a lot freer to experiment with it, to throw out the bits that didn’t work, and to discover new scenes. I’m trying to get better at seeing my writing as something in process.

Be present in the room

There’s something mind focusing about going to a place you associate with a certain activity. For me, Port Meadow is associated with running, the Upper Bod is associated with reading, and the Colin Matthews seminar room is now associated with writing! For the R&D, we had the rehearsal room for 5 days and we made sure we made the most of it. The days were long and, when we were working, we were focused. It also meant that, on the actors’ day off, I could go into the space and have a really productive writing session because it had become associated in my mind with being creative.

Make yourself accountable

The R&D was one of the first times I’d taken myself seriously as a playwright (because I was being paid?! – thanks Arts Council). The week before, I was freaking myself out with imposter syndrome (what if they’d made a mistake and would demand the money back; what if I let everyone down etc etc) and had to have a stern talking to from the director Charlotte. But when we were in the room, we worked as professionals. Working in a team also meant that we were all accountable to each other – if I hadn’t delivered the script on time, then there would have been nothing for the actors to read at the public sharing. One thing that surprised me about taking part in Academic Writing Group was how writing with others in the room focuses my mind (I’d previously had some weird hang-ups about only being able to write alone, in a silent library). Before each writing session, we set goals on our tables, then check in with our partners to see whether we achieved them.

(Try to) turn off the inner critic

I can and will argue for the best criticism being creative. But the critical mindset is to unpick/deconstruct/evaluate, which isn’t helpful when you’re trying to generate something that is fragile and needs space to breathe in order to grow. I’m not sure how to break this intellectual habit – and it’s especially difficult if you spend your days doing this on books not to apply it to your own work. But in the rehearsal room, I gave myself permission to play, whilst suspending judgement. Sometimes when I get stuck with my PhD, I write in forms that wouldn’t normally be accepted in academic writing (a section of my intro was written in dialogue between a dragon and a hedgehog…I kind of want to leave it in there like that). This takes the pressure off but I often find it generates my best ideas.

It’s a collaboration

Sometimes academics are mythologised as intellectuals working in splendid isolation on their magnum opus. And obviously it does need to be primarily your own work because of intellectual property etc. But it is so freeing to challenge the idea of individual authorship – either of a play (which is patently ridiculous – what about the director, producer, actors, set etc?) or a PhD. Adelina Ong gave some great advice to postgraduate students at the TaPRA conference: ‘skate with friends’. Support each other, share work, be generous with your ideas. A PhD can feel isolating at times, but it doesn’t have to be completed in isolation. Post R&D, I’ve decided that my supervisor is like the dramaturg to my thesis (I haven’t asked her how she feels about this yet!). The best dramaturgs help you realise what you’re trying to say and to put them in a shape that best expresses those ideas to other people.

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Review: Berberian Sound Studio at Donmar Warehouse

Originally published on Exeunt Magazine

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Berberian Sound Studio, designed by Tom Scutt and Anna Yates, at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Marc Brenner.

In my mind’s eye, this review is a soundscape. Unfortunately, I lack the time, skill and technical equipment to produce such a thing. I have to substitute words for Berberian Sound Studio’s collage of sounds and images; words slip, skating over the surface. You’ll just have to imagine what it would be like translated into abstract sound. Berberian Sound Studio asks its audience to do a lot of imagining too.

What is the sound of fear? This is the question that Gilderoy, a sound engineer from Dorking, Surrey, is trying to answer when he comes to Italy to design the soundtrack for the mysterious, visionary director Santini’s latest film. Gilderoy, who has spent his career sound-designing nature documentaries, thinks he’s been asked to help make a film about horses. However, he soon discovers that, though the film has an equestrian element, it’s a basically pornographic horror film about two young women, accused of witchcraft, being tortured to death. Tom Brooke plays Gilderoy with an endearing humour, helped by his seemingly-unlimited range of facial expressions. Over the course of the performance, the type of the genial Englishman abroad is powerfully broken down by Gilderoy’s psychological disintegration.

The film they are making is a Giallo, which film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas defines in the programme as ‘sex-and-violence drenched horror/ mystery films marked by frequently baroque aesthetics’. These films are fascinated, Heller-Nicholas writes, ‘with the intersection – and frequently collapse – of the categories of “art” and “reality”.’ Peter Strickland’s 2011 film, Berberian Sound Studio, is both a story about the making of a Giallo, and a Giallo itself. The boundaries between what is real and what is art in Joel Horwood and Tom Scutt’s stage version are similarly blurry. There are several jump scares and the violence of the play escalates following the bone-deep structure of horror films, as the division between the film-within-a-play and the play become less clear.

In Scutt’s Berberian Sound Studio, we never actually see the film they are making. It is conveyed by a wide beam of dusty, shifting coloured light (designed by Lee Curran), directing our attention to an invisible projection screen at the backwall of the auditorium. The possible violent, sexual and melodramatic content of the film is suggested by the two actresses’ repeated takes of a scene, played in Italian, in which one is required to give a bloodcurdling scream. The film’s in-house Foley artists, Massimo and Massimo (Tom Espiner, who also designed the Foley, and Hemi Yeroham) evoke the film’s thematic preoccupations in a virtuosic sequence, violently scooping out the flesh of a watermelon and butchering a cabbage with an axe.

While the attention paid to sound (composed and designed by Ben and Max Ringham) in the production makes it unusual, Berberian Sound Studio is as strongly visual as it is aural (perhaps no surprise given that Tom Scutt is primarily a designer). Espiner and Yeroham’s Foley display is a spectacle. A double act in brown lab coats, they are putting on a show in demonstrating an anachronistic art form. The visual exuberance of this auditory cornucopia seems to contrast with the rest of the scenography: the recording studio and sound booth are rendered with painstaking realism in Anna Yates and Tom Scutt’s design, a sign calling ‘Silenzio’ glowing red above the studio.

Yet the production is also interested in exploring what makes something a realistic theatrical illusion. Part of the pleasure of watching Foley is being conscious of the gap between how the sound is produced (for example, a carrot being cut with pliers) and what the sound is used to represent (a thumb being broken in thumb screws). What does it mean for sound to be mimetic? At the scariest moment of the film, sound is unmoored from its referent and means of production to become a free-floating signifier – Gilderoy’s recording of his Mum spilling tea over herself becomes a terrifying monster. Is it so effective because an element of real pain has gone into creating the sound? By staging the production of sound effects, Berberian Sound Studio is able to expose the power dynamics that go into the creation of these visions of reality, the ideology behind the moving image.

Because in Santini’s studio, women are exploited. The actress Sylvia (Lara Rossi) is pressured to record repeated takes of her screaming, although she has been told by a doctor that it harms her throat. Later, Gilderoy tortures the other actress Carla (Beatrice Scirocchi) with a terrifying soundtrack, telling her that he wants the scream to be real, not acting. In a sense though, all the screams heard in the play are real; they are produced by real people, from real voice boxes, taking a real toll on real throats. Recording technology alienates the actresses’ voices from their bodies: the actresses employed to voice the characters in the film are different from the ones who played them onscreen; Sylvia, who challenges Santini on his treatment of women in the script, is easily replaced by Carla. In Santini’s film, the actresses are seen as voices, not as people.

Throughout, Gilderoy gathers and collages sounds from life to transform into art on his recording box: an actress’s cough, his mother’s messages from home. At an almost imperceptible point, Gilderoy’s gathering becomes exploitative. Great art must be separate from ethics, Santini tells Gilderoy. Berberian Sound Studio seems to suggest that, as art is inextricable from the real, it also cannot be separated from ethics.

Berberian Sound Studio is on at the Donmar until 30th March. More info here

Review: When we have sufficiently tortured each other, National Theatre

Originally published on Exeunt Magazine.

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When we have sufficiently tortured each other at National Theatre. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

The central metaphor of Martin Crimp and Katie Mitchell’s When we have sufficiently tortured each other is penetration. Sexual, of course. Woman reports Man saying, ‘All I think about is being inside your body – to penetrate your body, that’s all that counts’. Also textual. Woman tells Man, ‘you hold words to a woman’s throat with the same accuracy you’d hold a knife and with one simple sentence you knock her to the ground and penetrate her body’. Reviews can penetrate too. Strap in for some penetrating analysis of the production’s take on gender roles. (Yes, I know everyone’s really here to see Cate Blanchett in a strap-on).

When we have sufficiently tortured each other is a loose adaptation of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel, Pamela; or, Virtue RewardedPamela, in which a servant girl resists her employer Mr B’s attempts to seduce and rape her, documents them in writing, and is eventually rewarded for her ‘virtue’ by marriage to him. It is a #problematic text to read in the light of contemporary sexual mores. It was envisaged by Richardson as an instructional text for women, men and, particularly, girls. The ostensible message is ‘hold out till marriage’ but interpretations of Pamela, such as Henry Fielding’s unsubtly titled parody, Shamela, have depicted Pamela as a woman who schemes to entrap her master into marriage, tempting him through her refusals: no really means yes; Pamela was ‘asking for it’. Crimp and Mitchell’s version penetrates the complexities of the situation in the novel, re-envisioning it as a sadomasochistic sex game played between two characters known only as Man and Woman, with a supporting cast of characters drawn from the clichés of pornography: school girls, a lesbian in black leather boots, and a stable-hand.

Lack of context makes When we have sufficiently tortured each other dynamically unstable. The characters are not in the eighteenth century. They are in a breeze-block garage (designed by Vicki Mortimer with painstaking naturalism), complete with status-symbol Audi. But they are also not not in the eighteenth century – the gender and sexual norms are scarily consistent across almost four centuries. In the first scene Man says, ‘I’m a man. That means I can say and I can do to you whatever I like. Nothing will change that. In fifty years it will be the same – and the same in a hundred. And if you were to run from this room through any of these doors you would find yourself in a room exactly the same – and if you then ran from that room through any of that room’s doors you would find yourself in another room exactly the same – and so on and so on – Pamela. And in each of those rooms even if it was two hundred years from now or three, you would still be a child and I would still be a man and I would still have the power’. I hope that’s not true.

I found the absence of knowing whether or not what Man and Woman do to each other is consensual the most unsettling gap. Is it (consensual) BDSM or is it abuse? In the wake of #metoo, there has been a campaign for ‘no grey areas’. It is important to draw clear lines of behaviours that are wrong, activities that are beyond the pale – anything that infringes another’s bodily autonomy without their consent, for example. But the discussions about power and consent that emerged from #metoo also revealed how ambiguous some situations can be. I would feel a lot more comfortable if I could put Man and Woman’s relationship into a box – but perhaps it is and has to be more complicated than that. Human relationships are all about shades of grey (which is why negotiating and obtaining enthusiastic consent for each sexual act is important and is something that is not shown in Crimp’s play – don’t model your relationship on this, girls).

Blanchett and Dillane give multi-layered performances, imbuing Crimp’s slippery, intellectual script with depth. As Woman, Blanchett sometimes edges her words with a defiant irony, mocking Man’s manhood; sometimes, she puts on a high, girlish voice and plays at submission. Dillane is blustering and loquacious as Man, boasting about how much money he has in the bank, and tingeing his anecdotes that fill up the garage’s stale air with vague threat or seduction, the two almost indistinguishable.

They also swap roles. In the opening scene, both Blanchett and Dillane are dressed in French maid outfits; later, they take it in turns to put on and take off a grey suit. At first, it seems exhilarating that the roles of Pamela and Mr B, submissive and dominant, do not seem to be tied to the actor’s sexed bodies, as they can be taken on by either one of them. However, when Dillane is being Pamela he is being a woman, hectoring and girlish. There is none of the ironic edge of Blanchett’s Pamela in Dillane’s; he plays her as straight submissive. When Blanchett takes on the role of Mr B, she is being a man. She strides around in her suit with masculine gait. At one point, she even jacks off her imaginary penis, jizzing all over Dillane’s Pamela with her (actually, his) words.

Therefore, although the flipped gender casting seems to signal a radical interrogation of gender roles (what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a girl, as the play keeps saying), When we have sufficiently tortured each other actually ends up reinforcing established, heterosexual gender roles under patriarchy. Whilst the play questions whether masculinity has to be attached to domination and force, it never questions the central assumption that to be a man you have to have a penis. That to be a woman, one must allow oneself to be penetrated. This is proved in the final scene, when Blanchett as Mr B assumes her strap-on. At the end of the play, Dillane is Pamela, a woman, because he is going to allow himself to be penetrated.

The problem with When we have sufficiently tortured each other’s focus on penetration is that it centres the phallus (the penis as an abstract concept). I found the most powerful image of Mitchell’s production the moment when Mr B/Man/Dillane holds Pamela/Woman/Blanchett in a vice like grip against the car, pressing her bottom against his penis, as he forcibly dictates Pamela’s happy ending for her to type. The pen = the phallus (and OK Pamela doesn’t actually use a pen, she uses a MacBook – like the female writer in Ella Hickson’s The Writer – but it’s a contemporary adaptation).

This picks up on an uneasiness about gendered authorship and control I sensed when reading Pamela: Mr B is only persuaded of how virtuous Pamela is by reading her letters and diary entries that chronicle his attempts at seduction. At one point, Pamela describes sewing her writing into the lining of her dress to protect it. Mr B reading Pamela’s writing therefore substitutes textual violation for sexual violation; Crimp’s version repeatedly stages Man’s surveillance and critique of Woman’s writing. Is Pamela torture porn? Do readers of the novel and, indeed, viewers of the play get sexual pleasure from witnessing sexual harassment and attempted rape?

In the Preface to Pamela, Samuel Richardson even styles himself as the novel’s editor rather than its author, which has supposedly been written by Pamela, adding a further layer of metatextual male control. Blanchett’s Woman muses on what it means for her as a female character to have been scripted by a male author – whether she is a real woman with ideas of her own, or a character, limited by confines of her creator’s idea of what a woman should be. Just as the spectre of the male author hovers over Pamela the novel, Crimp’s authorship casts a phallus-shaped shadow over the production. What does it mean for a male playwright to attempt to write a feminist play?  I would be very interested to know how Mitchell and Crimp negotiated the gendered power dynamics of their relationship in the rehearsal room.

When we have sufficiently tortured each other is more insightful as a critique of capitalism than a comment on sexual mores in the post-#metoo era. The only moment of pleasure in the production, of Mr B’s satisfaction of Pamela’s desire by giving her ‘whatever you want’, is when Pamela orders the servant-man, Ross, to masturbate her – she instrumentalises the stable-hand into a hand, the invisible hand of capitalism made into a human dildo. Capitalism creates a power differential, which facilitates abuse. Yet most (good) drama and (good) sex depends upon some kind of power play. How do you square that?

When we have sufficiently tortured each other is on at the National Theatre until 2nd March. More details here.

Feature: Nick Field interview

‘Unicorn Party’ by Nick Field. Photo: Alex Brenner

Dr Who, Soho and neoliberalism. Unicorns and the rise of the far right. Nick Field’s theatre work channels juxtapositions through strong visual images to explore massive ideological concepts. ‘I’m really interested in playing with ideas of things that might seem really disposable and kitsch as a way of exploring something that goes very very deep,’ Field tells me over Skype. He’s on a break from rehearsals for Paid Fantasist, which he is co-creating with Rebecca Biscuit from Sh!t Theatre. He seems surprisingly relaxed for someone who is opening not one, but two shows in the next three weeks at Camden People’s Theatre: his collaboration with Biscuit and a solo show, Unicorn Party.

Paid Fantasist takes inspiration from a ‘Day in the Life’ article written by Tom Baker (the Fourth Doctor, of the long, stripey scarf). The drunken odyssey round London Baker describes is used by Biscuit and Field as a document of Soho in 1978: a year of strikes, shortages, and panic about immigration. A few months before Margaret Thatcher came to power and inaugurated neoliberalism. Travelling back in time to 1978 reveals the clear parallels between then, when ‘the country was sort of falling apart at the seams a bit and Thatcher came in and offered neoliberalism as sense of new hope’, and the current political situation ‘when arguably neoliberalism is collapsing around us and a lot of the same issues are reoccurring’. One of the key themes of the piece is regeneration (personal, political, and Time-Lord), asking the question, ‘What can we now regenerate into when neoliberalism is collapsing?’. Soho, as place and symbol, provides the focal point for this exploration. Field tells me, ‘We look at legends of Soho, we create legends of Soho, we become legends of Soho…If a place means something to you and it’s being regenerated out of existence, then what does that do to you as a person?’

Paid Fantasist is the first time that Biscuit and Field (the name of their new company) have worked together. Collaborating so intensely with another theatre-maker is also a new experience for Field, who has previously worked as solo artist. As well as the fun they’ve had in developing a working practice for their company, Field thinks the collaboration has generated a ‘conversational quality’ and ‘new energy’ to Paid Fantasist. Biscuit and Field met four years ago through a clowning workshop and discovered they shared skills and approaches that complemented each other. In the show, Field tells me ‘there’s a moment where we become a 1978 performance art drag band, singing songs about neoliberalism in the Colony Room Club in 1978’. Paid Fantasist is then, dramaturgically and thematically, ‘pretty damn queer’.

Nick Field’s solo show Unicorn Party sounds even queerer: ‘I start off being kind of like a unicorn stormtrooper and essentially it becomes drag throughout the show’, he tells me. He opened the show at the Harlow Playhouse in Essex and was conscious that ‘it’s very queer work and I was opening the show in a context that wasn’t necessarily framing that’, which can feel risky. He explains, ‘for queer artists, you have to have an extra awareness of the context you’re taking the work into and sometimes you’re like, “Ok, I don’t know how this is going to be received, I don’t know how people are going to take this”. This shouldn’t be a problem at Camden People’s Theatre, the next stop for Unicorn Party, which has built up a strong LGBTQ+ audience, through such initiatives as its Come as You Are Festival. Then again, he adds, ‘I also think it’s important to take queer work to people who won’t get to see it so much’.

The idea for Unicorn Party came about a few years ago when Field noticed that unicorns seemed to be everywhere. While unicorns used to be ‘a queer symbol of self-acceptance and empowerment, that’s been co-opted and commercialised’ into something ‘cutesy’, pink and plastic. But what’s the connection between unicorns and fascism? ‘Unicorns throughout history have represented concepts of purity and purity is a major occupation of fascist thinking’, Field explains. In fact, Field’s research led him to realise that ‘the unicorn as a concept has been part of human experience since the very earliest civilisations’, recreated and reimagined by different cultures. ‘It seemed to me that unicorns actually offer a great opportunity to explore ideological threads across history, across cultures, but also across processes of commercialisation’. He does this through live music, storytelling and conjuring a unicorn Frappuccino onstage.

Although my brain is now firing with all the representations of unicorns I can think of and their ideological significance, I’m still struggling to visualise what the show will actually entail. How would he describe his practice as an artist? He began his career as a playwright, so dramaturgy underpins the construction of his work, which also incorporates live music and contemporary performance. There is also a strong visual aspect to his shows; alongside his performance making, Field works as an art director with photographer Holly McGlynn. He moved from playwriting to performance via a brief detour through spoken word. However, he says ‘as a queer practitioner, I found it limiting very quickly’: ‘If there was a regular night of spoken word or performance poetry, I always felt I was invited if they were having a special gay night, which maybe they’d do once a year around Pride time’. He also found the form artistically limiting, although he acknowledges that spoken word and performance poetry have developed a lot since then. Theatre affords more space to expand upon ideas.

This brings us onto Pow!, a series of development workshops that Nick Field ran with support from Spread the Word to encourage emerging LGBTQ artists to experiment with the possibilities of live literature. I took part in this scheme and developed my first solo performance, a ten-minute piece about being shy. As someone who hadn’t performed since my role as chorus member in several school plays, I was pretty surprised to find myself telling a packed crowd at Bar Wotever at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern about my life and for them actually to find bits of it funny and relatable. Other performances in the showcase included a hilarious investigation of queer-women’s obsession with astrology by Lizzie Masterton and a slick fusion of drag and performance poetry by Alex Marlow.

It’s important, Field explains, to have specific schemes for LGBTQ young artists to provide ‘a specific, supportive environment, where there’s a base level understanding of essentially where everyone is coming from, to some extent, so that we can develop work from there, rather than from a place of “do people get this?”’ I certainly found that making my show in a context in which my LGBTQ-identity was taken as a given, not something that needed to be explained, allowed me to experiment and take risks. There was a strong emphasis in the workshops on writing from personal experience; I felt like I could bring my whole self into the room. Field comments, ‘What we were able to achieve with Pow! was a context in which people felt they were able to be really open and honest. That really resonated in the work, which then in turn really resonates with audiences’. I should add that Field is a generous and dramaturgically astute mentor, and a great part of the success of the workshops was due to his facilitation with Katayoun Jalili.

Field is a strong believer in the power of workshops to forge community, develop peer networks to support and grow work, and to find collaborators, which he suggests is particularly important for young LGBTQ artists. It is through finding this sustaining community that you can ‘be really clear about what your voice is and how you’re putting that out into the world’. Though Unicorn Party appears as a solo show, Field is quick to acknowledge the contributions of Billy Barrett and Rachel Mars who have worked on it with him. I’m reminded of what Peggy Shaw says in the introduction to her published solo shows: ‘I am a solo artist and, by virtue of that, a collaborator – “I would be nothing without you.”’ ‘You’ being the dramaturg, the designer, the audience… Perhaps this sense of an intimate, mutually nourishing ecosystem is particularly true of queer performance.

Originally published on Exeunt Magazine

Review: The Funeral Director

‘The Funeral Director’ at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton

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.

Originally published on Exeunt Magazine

Review: The Cane

The Cane at the Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

The Cane at the Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

‘It’s very childish, this need to know everything’, Maureen tells her daughter Anna in Mark Ravenhill’s new play, The Cane. She believes that some things are better left unspoken, some skeletons are better left in the closet. Anna, on the other hand, disowned by her teacher parents for taking up the cause of academisation, talks the management-speak of ‘transparency’ and ‘best practice’. In her view, the past should be picked over and reckoned with. The reason for this reckoning: her father Edward is retiring after 45-years of teaching, a teaching career that included using the cane to discipline boys.

Ravenhill’s play is a masterclass in naturalism, one that shows how subtle and slippery naturalism as a form can be. Under Vicky Featherstone’s sensitive direction, sympathies and allegiances shift between characters as the evidence gathers. Was Edward justified in doling out punishment as an accepted, legal practice? Or should he have stuck to his principles, when he and Maureen declared themselves against the cane as student teachers? Did Edward reluctantly take on the role of Deputy Head, knowing that it involved caning, in order to support his family? Or did he like the power?

In the second half of the play, Anna, played by Nicola Walker with the defiance of a child and the steely control of a woman, dares her father to reveal his sadistic streak. Edward, who at first seems an amiable enough man in Alun Armstrong’s performance, displays terrifying flashes of misogynistic rage, calling his wife and daughter ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’. The previously spiky Maureen cowers in the corner, intoning ‘I don’t want any more rage’, in a brilliant performance by Maggie Steed. The Cane reveals the latent, patriarchal violence of rules, whoever is upholding them.

Chloe Lamford’s set is a key part of the impact of the production. The drab, grey walls bear scars from when, Maureen says, as a child Anna chased her father round the room with an axe. Anna claims not to remember. Rotting stairs float up the walls, which extend to an impossibly high ceiling. The walls dwarf Anna and Maureen as, in the vein of the best dysfunctional family dramas, they find the sharpest language with which to hurt each other. The ceiling creeps down between the acts, compressing the oxygen in the room as the tension builds. The lowered ceiling reveals the attic, Edward’s hidey-hole of mementoes from the past that he has not been able to throw away. Yet, rather than the awe of revelation of the fantasy forest wonderland above an otherwise naturalistic set in Bunnie Christie’s design for Robert Icke’s The Wild Duck, Lamford’s attic has grey stone walls. There is no escape to imagination. Instead, the past returns insistently, through the battered décor, the ladder down from the attic, and the shared history of the family.

‘Is that it?’, Maureen asks, when Edward has finally brought down the cane from the attic and unwrapped it from its blanket swaddling. Over the course of the play, the cane has taken on such a great symbolic stature that seeing how small and slight it is cannot help but be a disappointment. All this over a piece of wood? But it’s not just a piece of wood. It represents state-sanctioned abuses of power, colonial rule, patriarchy. Edward’s final monologue, which Armstrong delivers staring directly at the audience as the ceiling closes in on him, even draws parallels with the tribunals of ageing war criminals. The Cane brilliantly, troublingly asks, how do we reckon with uncomfortable histories (for uncomfortable read violent) without diminishing or palliating them? How do we take responsibility and who should take responsibility? Can an apology ever be sufficient?

Originally published in Exeunt Magazine

Review: Revelations

Posting some of my Edinburgh reviews, originally published by Exeunt.

Revelations - Sigourney Kelly

Photo: Sigourney Kelly

I loved Revelations. The friend I saw it with did not. “Don’t you think it’s quite manipulative? Also, what gives him the right to share Sarah and Emma’s story of their pregnancy?” These are both fair criticisms. (Though, the way James Rowland tells it, he was very much part of the story too. He donated his sperm to his childhood friend Sarah and her partner Emma, and supported them throughout. And he tells us he checked with them what he included in the piece). And I do think it’s a bit weird/ ironic/ disappointing that the only lesbian story I saw at this year’s fringe was told by a straight man. But while I was inside James Rowland’s story womb those thoughts didn’t occur to me.

Manipulate is not quite the right word because it implies lack of consent or cooperation. Like a preacher (or a consummate storyteller), Rowland knows how to move an audience, in the sense of physically and emotionally taking them from one place to another. He starts off by getting us to sing a song that he wrote, saying he wants to send it to his niece for her birthday.

There is something about the collective act of singing together that unites people, forming a rabble of bedraggled fringe-goers into a congregation. A show, he tells us later, is should be structured a bit like a church service: some hymns, a sermon, prayer. This structure is an apt choice for a show in part about growing up Christian and losing one’s faith in God. Rowland is a subtle architect of feelings.

I bought the script because I want to unpick how it manages to interweave such disparate strands as a fox playing in the snow, the story of a pregnancy, friendship, Christian youth camp, and speaking in tongues, and how it works so well. But maybe what binds them all together is Rowland’s performance, how he almost doesn’t seem to be performing but talking to you like a friend he hasn’t seen for a while, the kind of friend you land up having a deep conversation with a few pints in, without realising quite how you got there or that it was going that way.

Rowland talks a lot in Revelations about pubs and theatres being secular churches. Yeah you can be cynical about it but how many other public spaces do we have left in which you can be vulnerable and share big thoughts about our shared humanity or, you know, just about life and stuff? That seems a pretty good reason to go to the theatre to me.

*

Hannah’s revelation (Maybe don’t read this bit if you haven’t seen the show)

Friend: Hannah, you do know Sarah and Emma aren’t real?

Hannah: What?

Friend: They’re fictional characters.

Hannah: What?! So there was no pregnancy?

Friend: No.

Hannah: There was no baby Tom?

Friend: No.

Hannah: So the terribly traumatic thing that happened did not have to happen because of truth to life.

Friend: No.

Hannah: Now I feel manipulated.

Friend: It’s part of a trilogy. You didn’t see the other shows?

Hannah: No.

Friend: It’s storytelling. He plays a character called James. He does this thing with authenticity and truth.

Hannah: So, if it didn’t happen to him, why did he choose to tell this story?

Friend: That was what I said at the beginning of this review. Even if it had been true, it wouldn’t have been his story to tell because he didn’t grow a baby in his body or support a partner growing a baby in her body.

Hannah: Why does he write about lesbian pregnancy?

Friend: More interesting than the bog-standard heterosexual version I suppose.

Hannah: You’re being cynical.

Friend: Yes. You’ve changed your tune. You said you loved it.

Hannah: I’ve changed my mind.

Friend: Why?

Hannah: I trusted him. He made me feel things. I believed Sarah and Emma were real people, not characters. I grieved with them. I believed in Tom. I feel betrayed.

Friend: Doesn’t that prove that he’s a great storyteller, a, what was it you said, ‘architect of feelings’?

Hannah: I suppose.

Friend: Why should it matter if it actually happened or not if it feels true?

Hannah: It matters because he pretends it’s true and that’s a betrayal of trust. It matters because there are people who have actually had similar experiences in real life.

Friend: He says it’s not true. He says at the end stories are ‘all true when we believe them’.

Hannah: I must have missed that bit. Anyway, it’s pretty oblique.

Friend: It’s theatre, Hannah, what did you expect?

Hannah: I still feel betrayed. I feel betrayed by theatre. I’m not sure I want to have big thoughts about humanity shared with me anymore.

Friend: Am I even real?

Hannah: You’re an amalgam of people and thoughts. You’re a rhetorical device. This Hannah is a fictional character too.

Friend: How’s that different from what James Rowland is doing?

Hannah: It’s different. It just is.

Friend: You’ve got to admire his craft though.

Hannah: Yeah.