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Year in Review: Theatre 2014

Year in Review: Theatre 2014

December 31 2014

With the call for diversity ringing in many theatre company’s ears after Arts Council England chair Peter Bazelgette urged them to put it at the heart of what they do, we take stock of the year…

CONTROVERSY was struck in December when celebrated anti-apartheid activist and actor Janet Suzman declared theatre to have been a “European invention” and mainly for white folks.

Suzman offered the injudicious insight after responding to Meera Syal’s comments about the West End needing to do more to attract the “Brown Pound” (Asian audiences).

Suzman’s contention was that despite putting on plays about ethnic subjects and having good black actors in productions, the “West End or commercial theatre in the UK”, simply didn’t appeal to Asian and other ethnic minorities.

Elsewhere but somewhat related – culture secretary Sajid Javid and Arts Council England chair were virtually speaking from same pulpit when they said that the divisions that have risen in the arts world need to be dismantled.

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Asha Waghekar (Stephanie Street) with Zehrunisa Husain (Meera Syal)

If professionals won’t do it themselves, then funding priorities might well reflect this, hinted the powers that be. In other words, good thoughts must translate into good deeds and the money will flow accordingly. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/opinion-janet-suzman-row-joining-dots-multi-cultural-britain/

Syal was right to draw attention to the fact that there is an audience out there that supports and enjoys productions that have a South Asian angle to them. In her original comments, she also made it clear that Asians were going to all kinds of theatre, but something with an Asian perspective often had added appeal.

That was borne out most completely this year by Rifco Arts’ “Happy Birthday, Sunita”.

One of the newer Asian theatre companies, based at Watford Palace Theatre, it put on a play with iconic Indian actress Shabana Amzi as one of the main leads. A veteran and probably as famous in India, as Helen Mirren is here, Azmi proved a big box office draw. The production played to packed houses and had ample crossover appeal too. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/stars-happy-birthday-sunita-reveal-inner-demons-their-characters/

Though “Happy Birthday, Sunita” was a light and comedic piece, it showed that Asian-inspired drama did not need to be heavy or about “racism” or other myriad social issues. It could just as easily be character and plot driven with ethnicity playing out as one factor among many. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/happy-birthday-sunita-light-tight-happy-tickle-review/

That level of sophistication – and a certain degree of very healthy self-reflection and self-criticism was very apparent in Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s “Khandan” which played at the Royal Court in June.

Bhatti, well-known for her more radical and controversial work “Behzti” (Dishonour), chartered the fate of a seemingly well-integrated Punjabi family in the Midlands.

Matriarch Jeeto, clear and firm, son Pal, loyal and hardworking, daughter Cookie, married with two children and in control of her own business, dutiful and culturally attuned white daughter-in-law, Liz, all seemed to get on more or less. But the arrival of Reema from India slowly undermined the fragile links holding the family together. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/khandan-asian-families-happy-families/

Certainly, there’s talent out there – something Suzman said more mainstream companies need to nurture to make the West End a more ethnically friendly environment.

Sharmila Chauhan’s “The Husbands” was hugely imaginative and innovative, taking the once not so strange concept (in some communities in Kerala especially), of polyandry and dramatising it. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/dreamworld-women-charge-husbands/

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Sharmila Chauhan's 'The Husbands'

Equally, Rani Moorthy also continued to challenge stereotypes and crass assumptions in “States of Verbal Undress”, a play sourced from the verbatim testimonies of migrants themselves. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/moving-dreams-states-verbal-undress/

In between, these two was one of the undoubted theatre events, not just of this year, but quite possibly, the decade, from a South Asian perspective.

Nirbhaya” came to the Southbank Centre after a successful Edinburgh fringe festival run the year before.

South African Yael Farber’s intense and cogent drama won many awards and was widely recognised for its challenging themes.

Already much written and talked about because it was loosely constructed from the tragic debris of the Delhi rape case of 2012, it didn’t fail to move or empower. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/nirbhaya-tackling-sexual-violence/

The annual Alchemy Festival in May at the Southbank Centre brings a myriad of talents to our doorstep and among them this year was a whole night dedicated to female comedy. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/whats-alchemy-women-comedy/

Chayya Syal was lucky enough to see the end product and was suitably impressed and inspired. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/alchemy-comedy-immigrant-diaries-six-pack-sensation/

No less importantly, Suman Bhuchar caught up with actor Davina Perera to talk about “Yellowface” a play about the politics of race and casting. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/davina-perera-yellowface-late-friend-sophiya-haque/

Tricyle theatre director Indhu Rubasingham picked up an Olivier award for the productions of “Handbagged”, which transferred to the West End and “Red Velvet” which went to Broadway. There was also a mini-festival seeking to encourage young people to participate more in the theatre. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/major-award-indhu-rubasingham/

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Sukki Singapora

Actor Madhav Sharma took a special production celebrating the work of Shakespeare and its impact on him, to India in a special one-man show. “Bharat, Blighty and the Bard” was cited as part of the reason why Sharma was presented with the inaugural Dadabhai Naoroji Award for Culture. We carried an interview before he left these shores http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/new-shakespeare-wallah-madhav-sharma/
Sudha Bhuchar, co-artistic director of Tamasha, gave a glimpse of what might be coming from her in 2015 – as she steps down from her role at the iconic theatre company to concentrate on her own writing.

Her play, “My Name is…” returned us to the cause celebre that was Molly/Misbah Campbell, the 12-year-old Scottish girl who found herself in a tussle between her Pakistani father and her Scottish mother. Bhuchar reproduced the actual trio’s comments as relayed to her after the scandal first broke in 2006.
Her skill was to weave a narrative and form the interviews into a coherent narrative. It was a triumph http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/falling-apart-mixed-marriages-name/

Perhaps her achievement was only slightly tarnished by the struggle she had to endure to get it to the stage with willing partners (http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/artistic-director-25-years-experience-treated-like-a-beginner/)

The Edinburgh fringe always throws up interesting productions and ones to look out for in the future.

Among these was Ayndrilla Singharay’s “Unsung” developed from a Rabindranath Tagore story “Punishment”. It showed the bard of India had something to say about sexism and violence towards women even back then, suggested Singharay. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/three-faces-edinburgh/

In the same spotlight on Asian acts at Edinburgh, we caught up with comic Sadia Azmat, whose “I am not Malala” show hints at its own very rich comic possibilities.

Away from Edinburgh, and at the Camden Fringe, Amna Khawja, showed that ethnicity need not mean artistic predictability. As a theatre director, she brought “The Wodehouse Principle” a dark tale written by a former acting colleague to Highgate Village. There wasn’t a ‘brown person or brown issue’ to be damned, and good for Khawja. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/edinburgh-fringe-camden-fringe-festival/

Yet more daring than this was Sukki Singapora – believed to be the first and only burlesque artist of South Asian origin performing professionally – and not unafraid of showing her ethnic roots. Indeed, she incorporates it into her act. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/sukki-singapora-art-burlesque/

As for really putting it out there – that goes to Nadia Manzoor’s one-woman confessional, “Burq Off!” which delighted and appalled but not so much in equal measure. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/tender-bittersweet-voice-falls-just-short-burq-review/

In the last quarter there was something of a flurry and it suggested theatre about and from minority perspectives was getting it dues.

The iconic “East is East” returned to the stage and that too the West End. It was staged as a Trafalgar Transformed initiative with writer Ayub Khan Din reprising the role inspired by his own father. There was a powerful insight when Din talked to Bhuchar about how the play came to be one of Tamasha’s most successful commissions. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/east-east-journey-through-time/

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Sudha Bhuchar with Ayub Khan Din and Jamie Lloyd of Trafalgar Transformed

A little up the road and to the east, a similar transformation of sorts was taking place with the David Baddiel penned, “The Infidel

A hugely successful independent film, it was turned into an equally enjoyable and riotous musical. Baddiel’s tale of a South Asian Muslim man discovering that he is actually Jewish is set to travel to India with the central character, a Hindu discovering he was actually born to Muslim parents. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/infidel-returns-make-big-noise/

Nina Raine’s play “Tiger Country” is ostensibly a play about the pressures of working as a doctor in a busy modern day NHS hospital, but it was about much more than that as leading lady, the resplendent Indira Varma revealed. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/burning-bright-indira-varma-tiger-country-career-choices/

Playing out until April next year is “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”, adapted for the stage by playwright David Hare from the much loved book of the same title by American journalist, Katherine Boo, it opened to terrific reviews.

We weren’t wholly convinced but there is still much to admire and the young talent as in “East is East” is well worth keeping an eye on.

Anila Dhami, nominated in the young journalist of the year category at the Asian Media Awards, wrote one of the earliest pieces on the play, as the actors assembled for a rehearsal in front of the media. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/behind-beautiful-forevers-turning-stage-slum/

There are strong performances throughout and our quibbles, such as they are, are to do with length and structure and there’s more of a cerebral response to the play, which seems strange considering the subject matter – abject poverty.

Stephanie Street, Chook Sibtain and Thusitha Jayasundera expertly offered their own insights and commentary into what will continue to be one of the productions going into 2015. http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/morality-survival-behind-beautiful-forevers/

Next year should prove no less interesting – with a new musical version of “Bend It Like Beckham” and the Mughal inspired drama, “Dara” coming to the National.

Watch this space!

Thanks to our section contributors: Suman Bhuchar, Devika Banerjee, Chayya Syal and Anila Dhami.

You can always reach and talk to us here on our FACEBOOK page.

Happy 2015!
Sailesh Ram, editor of wwww.asianculturevulture.com

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture