CRASHING THE GATES. 5 Provocations on Contemporary British Theatre

I am a theatre director and the Associate Director of the Bush Theatre in London. For the last 40 years, the Bush was based in a small room above a pub. From its 80-seat auditorium in Shepherd’s Bush Green, in west London, it has discovered and launched generations of successful and influential British playwrights, actors, and artists. I don’t belong to that history; but I am now part of it and currently contributing to the writing of its next few chapters.

When I was asked to join the Bush by the new Artistic Director, Madani Younis, the theatre had just completed a move to its new home around the corner in the former Shepherd’s Bush Library. With this move, we transitioned from a small hidden door on the side of a local drinking outlet to a prominent landmark of the community’s history, next door to Shepherd’s Bush Market, arguably the most multicultural marketplace in the capital. Two years ago, Madani and I were fairly unknown outsiders in the big London theatre community – we had never run an organisation even close to the size of the Bush Theatre; we both have very “eclectic” backgrounds in theatre-making rather than in more traditional “New Writing”; and nobody knew how to spell or pronounce our names correctly. This final point still hasn’t improved, although there’s been some progress.

We commission and produce only new and original plays and shows. This means that we find plays that we want to stage, or we commission playwrights and artists to create new work from scratch. This year, we’ve produced three fantastic new plays by debut playwrights.

Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which went on to win this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama, was probably our first landmark production. Producing this play was certainly the first time we realized that our voices and decisions could make an impact. Disgraced is a fairly traditional play – it deals with one of the three Rs in the great tradition of American drama: “Race/Religion/Real Estate.” In the case of this extremely thought-provoking and contentious play, Ayad decided to take on religion and its impact on the lives of people, and specifically on the life of his protagonist. But more than religion, this play struck hardest in the debate that it stages over the idea of the “other within.” And while we weren’t sure whether a British audience could digest the issues at the core of this debate, we learnt very quickly in just a few days after announcing the play that there was – and still is – a great hunger for these questions from audiences and communities that have historically been completely neglected or misrepresented by mainstream British theatre. It was a great opportunity for us to articulate our position and perspective within the theatre ecology we are part of. A couple of days before opening the show, Madani wrote an open letter to Ayad, which was published by the Evening Standard, the most widely-circulated free newspaper in London. I’d like to read you an extract:

Dear Ayad,

You know as well as I do, that we, the children of immigrant parents, have to continually demand our cultural rights to create a new-shared history. This, as history teaches us time and again, is the journey of any new immigrant group. Looking back to my twenties I can see now I had an unflinching confidence in laying claim to this moment that I was living, and to a New Britain that I believed was being created.

Then we were hit by the emergence of a new international terror, both 9/11 and the bellicose response to it. This terror was played out in the very region of the world that both of our fathers had affectionately referred to as home.

For you it was 9/11, for me 7/7. The reaction to these events created another, unexpected and unforgiving shared history that would forcibly redefine our sense of self and place. I remember news crews descending on the streets of West Yorkshire, frantically constructing what I perceived to be a contrived reality. Narratives were peddled that described the communities I lived within as being disconnected and failing to contribute to the city’s civic life. Mosques that had been the cornerstone of those communities were now suspected of being “centres of radicalisation”.

In the month following 7/7 I would be stopped and searched several times by the police and issued with the mandatory pink slip — an official record of our encounter. I would tell my parents of my first two stops. My vulnerability, suddenly feeling that I didn’t belong, was met by an unbearable sadness. It was too painful for them — their labour and sweat had been the ground upon which my dreams had walked.

In this moment I understood the fullness of James Baldwin’s words when he described himself as the other in the only place that he had come to accept as being home. Quickly these “realities” were represented on stages, on screen, in academia and so it was born — the story of the disillusioned and dislocated Angry Brown Man. Many of these narratives afforded some in our country the pretext to purge themselves of an accumulated fear of immigrant communities, a desire that had clearly been brewing for decades. New voices slowly emerged. What impact we had on the dominant narratives that were being presented at the time can be questioned. These other stories were fuelled less by the anger that many were clambering so desperately to understand, than by the love, ambition and fight that I witnessed among my communities.

In 2012 I returned to the city that had shaped my youth and to the Bush Theatre, located in the heart of west London’s Shepherd’s Bush. Ayad, when you come to visit us you will see that the streets of Shepherd’s Bush are alive with the languages and garbs of those for whom London had become a part of their individual and shared stories. Through these difficult times this metropolis continues to beckon people to it from around the world with promises of prosperity, of refuge and of being reborn. My personal mission here at the theatre is driven by an ambition to find and produce these playwrights and artists who are reflecting and redefining our cities nationally and internationally. I seek to provoke the canon of British theatre with these voices, so that we do not remain a cultural footnote but the beginning of chapters in our rich theatre history that represent the Britain that I still call home.

Population analysis of London reveals an image of a city that in less than two decades will see young Londoners reflecting, in even greater numbers, histories and ancestries that have been fused together from both within and beyond the shores of our country. I hope I am here to witness this version of a city that I am in love with. I hope that in spite of the narrowing conservatism sweeping across our Europe today that the culture being borne by this generation becomes even more present and pervasive. I want to close the gap between art and life in this great city. However, today we are experiencing a continuing reduction in state subsidy to the arts alongside all other areas of public wellbeing. We have to fight to defend the level of government funding to the arts, while at the same time recognising that there is an inequality of provision across London and nationwide that is preventing all those voices that make up New London and New Britain being articulated on our stages. We must change in order to create a version of ourselves that confronts the plurality of who we are, and will in time become, as a nation.

It was not until late December of 2012 when reading your first play, Disgraced, that I was struck by how the global turmoil that we as a nation are both helping to create and are the subject of is experienced and spoken of from another vantage point. I was most taken by the fact that you, like JB Priestley, understood implicitly the nature of the audience who would first encounter your work. The central protagonists of your play do not perceive themselves (at least early on) as being peripheral in their own country; they occupy confidently and without apology a central space within their society. They negotiate and speak to the world without the filter of a liberal guilt. It is your ability to reveal this most uncomfortable of truths that we share globally — that you can be a Muslim, hold middle-class values and aspirations but still be in thrall to the curse of “the other” — that, I have very little doubt, has drawn so many to your work.

I believe wholeheartedly that those men and women who experience Disgraced in London will be forced to confront a shared reality that compels us all to see the world from yet another vantage point.

Warm regards,

The points raised in this letter, which are just a small – but very articulate – echo of the endless conversations we have on a daily basis in our theatre, are pivotal both for my analysis of the state of today’s cultural landscape in London, and for suggesting why the term “postmigrant” feels more limiting than affirming, especially within the British experience.

I’d like to offer you 5 provocations on how British theatre can be affected in order to embrace change and contribute to building a cultural capital that will impact the next generation, regardless of its cultural or geographical heritage.