THE title of Shahid Iqbal Khan’s new play comes from the final ten nights of Ramadan, during which Laylat-al-Qadr, the night of power, falls. The night of power commemorates the Prophet Muhammad’s receiving the first verses of the Qur’an, and is believed to hold special potency for charitable giving, religious study, and praying.
But these concerns are not at the forefront of Yasser’s mind when he volunteers at a fast-breaking charity dinner to spend itikaf, Ramadan’s final ten nights, at the mosque. Zaqi Ismail’s portrayal captures his character’s hesitancy and avoidance, at first agreeing as much to please his father, and to get one over on his former friend Usman, who has become increasingly observant, as for spiritual reasons. Summing up others’ doubts about whether he is made of the right spiritual stuff for the ten days ahead, Yasser deadpans: “Itikaf isn’t for any Tom, Dick, or Harry.”
In the Bush’s spare staging, a raised platform with rugs, a reading stand and a curtain represent the mosque, and the area around it stands for Yasser’s Instagram-obsessed everyday life. Developed with Graeae theatre company, who champion disabled and deaf talent, a performance interpreter (Sumayya Si-Tayeb/Chandrika Gopalakrishnan) is at the centre of the action, not relegated to the sidelines.
When Yasser enters the world of the mosque, at first his head is full of thoughts of doughnuts, the actress Priyanka Chopra, and the irritating habits of his know-it-all fellow devotees. First, they put him right on the correct way to perform wudu, the ritual cleansing before prayer, and later he is told his hands are not in the right position while praying. “I should feel grateful. But all I feel is shame.”
As he struggles with the effects of fasting, his twin motivations for shutting himself away from the world of chunky chips become clear: to do itikaf on behalf of his friend Aftab, who was killed drunk driving, and to face his own worldly demons. The deaf actor Safyan Iqbal brings the spirit of Aftab to the stage with great presence. As the work concludes, Yasser starts to see himself as part of his religious community rather than a snarky observer. And that acceptance spurs him to tackle aspects of his own behaviour so long denied.
The original conception for 10 Nights was that two actors would play Yasser, but it evolved in rehearsals that one performer would be the protagonist, and the dead Aftab would be played through gesture by a second performer. The interpreter stands for Aneela, “the girl of my best friend”, to use Elvis’s phrase, and the forbidden love interest burned into Yasser’s memory.
At the very first performance of the reformulated production, young actor Ismail handled the additional dialogue and artistic load fluently, as he informed the audience on the way in which the five daily prayers bridge different times of day, and the reason that Allah is known by 99 names.
Blocking three characters on a tiny stage cannot have been easy, and the performance is audio-described in English and Urdu on a screen downstage, adding a further element. While the spell of immersion was occasionally broken on this first airing, there was certainly a greater understanding of Islam and traits shared across faiths at curtain fall than 80 minutes previously.
10 Nights is at the Bush Theatre, 7 Uxbridge Rd, London W12, until 6 November. Tickets from www.bushtheatre.co.uk or phone 020 8743 5050.