The Black Album – August 2009

2/10

By Hanif Kureishi

Directed by Jatinder Verma

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 27th August 2009

I think I can best sum up this stage version of Hanif Kureshi’s novel with one succinct four-letter word. Dull. The only way I could really expand on that would be to repeat the word, several times. Fortunately, the seats in the Cottesloe were uncomfortable enough to keep me awake throughout the first half, so I can speak with some confidence as to the consistency of the dullness. Not even the Cottesloe seats could keep me totally alert for part two, but I got enough, with Steve’s input as well, to have a clear view of the production’s inadequacy.

How can this be, you may ask? Let me explain. The set was OK, a small room with two walls, opening wide from the back, each of which were used as screens before and during the performance. To begin with there were slogans, song titles, etc., then wallpaper and other furnishing images appeared which helped to create quick changes of scene. So far, so good.  The room had four doors, at least one window (the projections confused things a little) and a desk, sofa and chair. We could see the shadows of people knocking on the doors, and characters often used the front of the stage when they were walking outside. It all felt a bit rough and ready, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There was also music playing from time to time – not entirely to my taste, being a child of the sixties – but it was decent enough.

The story is set in the 1980s and begins with a young man, Shahid, heading off to college to get a qualification. His father is dead, his older brother is married, and his mother, possibly with the brother(?), runs the family’s travel agency business. There’s some nice humour to do with an over-protective mother sending her youngest away but that’s soon over and then we get to meet the different strata of society that young Shahid starts mixing with.

These include the overly rigid Muslims who want to mould him in their image, Shahid’s brother and sister-in-law (confusingly referred to as “aunt”) who are intent on enjoying the commercial opportunities and fleshpots offered by the West, the right-on female lecturer who beds Shahid and encourages him to think for himself, and her husband, the communistic lecturer who sees everything as an aspect of the class struggle. He’s going through a bad time because the opening up of the Eastern Bloc is revealing unpleasant truths about the former Communist regimes; he’s developing a stutter to compensate.

Not so much a coming-of-age piece, then, as a where-do-I-fit-in story with a state-of-the-nation setting. Shahid ultimately rejects the moral certainties of the religionists to stay with the lecturer, and the play ends with the two of them getting down to some serious nooky while his former Islamic brethren turn themselves into suicide bombers. When the bombs go off, the actors fall down and the walls collapse outwards, leaving the final image of a startled Shahid sitting up on the sofa trying to comprehend what’s just happened.

The final image was a good one, but sadly there was little else in the play to rejoice over. The funniest joke was probably the eating of the sacred pakora (it contained a message from god) but that had been so well signposted that it lost a lot of its impact. I had the feeling that we were meant to be laughing a lot more – nothing else could explain the less-than-two-dimensional characters and the turgid dialogue, which the actors often delivered as if they were reading off the back of a cereal packet. But either the humour just wasn’t there, or we, along with most of this audience, just weren’t getting it.

I don’t mean to criticise the actors either. Steve thought at first that they might have simply been miscast, but on the whole I think they were all doing their best with a very meagre script. Shereen Martineau, playing three female characters, probably got the most out of her parts, while I thought Alexander Andreou who played Riaz, the community’s political leader, also came across slightly better than the rest. The style of the production suggested a rollicking farce, or the Asian Marriage of Figaro we saw some time ago, while the dialogue just didn’t support that. There was one character, a kind of identikit skinhead drug dealer, who was a complete muddle, first supporting one side, then the other, but in a nod to My Beautiful Laundrette I guessed he was in a relationship with Shahid’s brother Chili. Homosexuality was hinted at, but not made explicit (unless I was dozing at that point). Anyway, the skinhead guy moved in a very choreographed way, which reminded me of the way they often play the clown role in comedies by the likes of Molière, but no one else really fitted with this style. I did like the fight scene in DeeDee’s flat, with Chili suddenly proving very good at dealing with attackers, but it didn’t make up for the remaining two hours of dross.

If we hadn’t known better, we would have thought this was some am-dram version of a very dated piece by a not very good writer, and while it still came across as very dated we know the rest isn’t true. I put the problems down to the script, Steve feels the director has a significant share of the responsibility, and neither of us feels like arguing about it. Let’s leave it at that.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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