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All this student room’s a stage

25 August 2009

Michael Caines sees a play about a young Muslim’s choices in late-’80s Britain

Sanity beyond Sevenoaks? Jonathan Bonnici as Shahid Hasan in Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album at the National Theatre in London before it tours TALULA SHEPPARD

Sanity beyond Sevenoaks? Jonathan Bonnici as Shahid Hasan in Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album at the National Theatre in London before it tours...

RATHER NAKEDLY, Hanif Kureishi’s play The Black Album, based on his second novel of the same name, is a morality play. What should a young man do when — born in Sevenoaks, the son of a travel agent of Pakistani extraction — he goes to university and is embraced by both a pleasure-seeking lecturer and his Islamic “brothers” who like their women veiled and obedient?

Obviously, Shahid must choose between those who would read The Satanic Verses and those who would burn “them”. He himself would like to write something like them. Is it better to doubt and play, embracing sen­suality, whether it is music, drink, sex, drugs, or driving a fast car, or to believe rigidly and without deviation, and so live a life of abstemious worthiness? For Shahid, the no-choice is not so difficult.

Salman Rushdie’s book was published in late 1988, and the first copy was committed to the flames in Bradford a few months later. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa soon fol­lowed. Translators of The Satanic Verses were murdered. These events, the play implies, and the choice bet­ween corrupt Western ways and a puritanical form of Islam, have led directly to the bombings on the London Underground of 7 July 2005.

Yet, in the late 1980s, one character can acclaim London as “the biggest Muslim city in the world”, and proudly proclaim the difference bet­ween his own creed and that of the indigenous people: “we’re not blasted Christians: we don’t turn the other buttock.” When pigs’ heads are left outside mosques, and vulnerable, impoverished Asians are attacked in their own homes on council estates — for “taking our jobs” — it is time to take action. A meat cleaver is brandished (but not further em­ployed). There are shouted debates with a Communist professor, whose own creed looks increasingly silly as the Eastern European situation progresses, and Deedee, that hedonist professor — who happens to be the Communist’s wife as well as Shahid’s lover.

Politicians, responsive to the needs of the Muslim communities on their turf, hitch a ride on the anti-Rushdie bandwagon. A miraculous apparition — the first Qur’anic letter appearing woven into the surface of a snack — causes great excitement. Every char­acter is a caricatured lunatic, with one humorous note each to hit on the head again and again.

The director, Jatinder Verma, is responsible for the uneven tone of the production and the equally uneven performances; good actors struggle helplessly against the unwieldy script. Tim Hatley’s set is somehow un­helpful, although it is difficult to say why, exactly. Perhaps it is that the space it creates on the Cottesloe stage is an awkward one, trying to be a student’s room and a larger forum for debate at the same time. Although there are many lively quips, many at the expense of unthinking Muslims, led on by their spiritual leaders, the narrative couldn’t be more predic­table, and barely less theatrical.

It also fails to make sense. The miraculous snack is (conveniently) on display in Shahid’s living room, and a devout crowd comes to see it; there is even talk of displaying it in the town hall. Then Shahid’s brother and a friend, a decidedly impious, drugged-up pair, pay a visit and eat the thing before he can stop them. Does this matter? No — it is never mentioned again.

It will be interesting to see how the play is received in Leeds, the first of its destinations when it tours outside London later this year. No doubt the ethnic and religious ideas raised in The Black Album are considered there with greater subtlety.

At the Cottesloe, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1, booking until 7 October. Phone 020 7452 3000. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

Tour details: www.tara-arts.com

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