Why Bodyguard inspired me

Note: Although much has been said and written about this already – because I’m still talking about it a month on I decided to put my thoughts in writing. N.B Spoilers.

At the moment my greatest inspiration is Bodyguard the BBC One drama by Jed Mercurio. It’s the most recent in a long line of dramas that misrepresent Muslims and make my blood boil. When I first picked up a pen to write drama it was precisely because of this kind of TV show – I’ve always known many talented Middle Eastern actors and I became so angry watching them continually audition for roles as terrorists, that I made it my mission to write parts for these actors – roles portraying non-white characters in all their glory, not some reductive stereotype.

In the last few years I began to feel like things might just be changing. We’ve seen hijabi characters in US shows like Orange is the New Black and Walking Dead, although we are yet to see any regular Arab or hijabi characters in a UK continuing drama – which is a real missed opportunity. But with a regular Muslim family in EastEnders (even though none of the women wear a hijab) and brilliant actors like Adeel Akhtar and Sanjeev Bhaskar being given more and more interesting roles (not defined by skin colour) in groundbreaking shows like River and Unforgotten my optimism has grown that things are changing. Then I turned on the telly a few Sundays ago and balked at what I saw. The first 20 minutes of, what I was later to learn was the “UK’s most watched drama since current records began”, consisted of a white male saviour coming to the rescue of a Muslim woman in a hijab with a suicide vest strapped to her. I was so angry I could have cried. But I tried to give the show the benefit of the doubt and watched on. By the time we got to the final episode when the female Muslim character is revealed to contain not one but two ‘brown woman’ stereotypes (oppressed woman and jihadi terrorist) I was feeling physically sick. For days afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about it and was disappointed by the lack of criticism or conversation about it in the main stream media. So I did something I very rarely do. I tweeted negatively about it. I worded the tweet carefully – it said ‘Genuinely shocked at how upset I am about Muslim representation in #bodyguard it’s really affected me – I think I’ve woken up to realise how little things have changed – I thought we’d come far in terms of representation but we’ve gone backwards and it makes me angry and sad’. I was astonished at the onslaught of abuse I received in response – it was misogynist and racist and I’ve never experienced anything like it. But for me it proved a point – portraying Muslims – indeed any minority – in a reductive stereotypical way especially if it is negative, gives permission for racist and in this case islamophobic behaviour. Television has great reach and with that comes great responsibility. If there were many different representations of Muslims on our screens then this programme might not matter. But there aren’t and so it really, really does. It was completely irresponsible and I believe that if a non-white person, or indeed a woman had written this drama then things would have been very different. So again I am inspired to keep writing by something that left me depressed and saddened because when I’m authoring my own television dramas they will undercut audience’s expectations and portray people of colour in a real, three-dimensional way.

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The Arab Theatre Institute Festival – Tunis January 2017

As anyone who watched my acceptance speech for the Arab British Centre Award for Culture will know – I was shocked to win the prize. I still am. But it all became real on 12 January when I boarded a plane to Tunisia to attend the Arab Theatre Institute’s 10th theatre festival there, as part of my prize generously funded by the British Council.

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I brought a copy of Hanan Al Shakyh’s Arabian Nights, a swimming costume (I’m an optimist) and, most importantly, Alia Al Zougbi with me. Alia is a brilliant theatre producer (and actress and storyteller) who worked on my play Scenes from 68* Years and who I’m proud to call my good friend. On this occasion she was also my voice, as my French is poor and my Arabic worse. I needed a translator and Alia had kindly agreed to come with me for that reason.

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The Municipal Theatre

 

When we arrived in Tunis it was raining (we’d brought the weather with us!) but the sun quickly came out in the form of Imed Belkhodja , who is the Projects Manager for British Council Tunisia and one of the nicest and most hospitable humans I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. He was the mastermind behind my packed three-day schedule which saw me attend six plays and meet a host of Tunisian theatremakers, both veterans and from the emerging generation.  He’d also kindly allowed time for eating which was a delight, my first taste of Tunisian food (and wine) at the wonderful Fondouk El Attarine had me hooked. Particularly the local Tunis special: Brik a filo pastry triangle with meat and a runny egg in the middle – I’m salivating at the thought of it.

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Brik

 

On the first day Imed was sure to show us where all the theatres were and instruct us how to collect our tickets for the shows. Over the course of the visit we saw many plays: A Moroccan production of Genet’s The Maids directed by Iraqi luminary Jawad Al Assadi; The Escape by Tunisian actor and director Ghazi Zaghbani – whose theatre, L’Artisto, is a small but perfectly formed black box any director in London would kill to work in.  On Sunday we saw In the Heart of Bagdad by Mohannad Hedi (Sweden/Iraq) ,  and Lebanese director Roger Assaf’s The War of Troy at the gorgeous and sumptuous  Municipal Theatre (Alia and I even managed to seat ourselves in a box as it was open seating).  Then Monday brought two Tunisian shows, a delicate puppet show The Encounter at the cavernous Ibn Rachik Cultural Centre and finally an impressive piece of physical theatre/ modern dance by Nejib Khalfallah called Miscarriage.

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The beautiful ceiling of the Municipal Theatre

On Sunday, Robert Ness the head of the British Council in Tunisia graciously hosted a lovely lunch where Alia and I had the opportunity to meet a host of interesting people from many different walks of life, not just theatre. He even organised some sun for the occasion.

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In other meetings we encountered  veteran Tunisian critic Abdelhalim Messaoudi; actresses Chekra Rammeh and Khaoula Hadef;  and Wafa Taboubi a director who was the first woman to take the Best Director award at the Carthage Theatre Festival last year for her play The Widows. Alia and I were sad to have missed that one, especially on glimpsing the recorded version which was theatrical and compelling, even on a small screen.

After our whirlwind trip I felt exhilarated and inspired. I’m really hoping the trip will lead to further fruitful conversations and hopefully, in time, collaborations with some of the impressive people I was privileged to meet. Watch this space…

This blog originally appeared on the Arab British Centre website.

My best of 2017

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Yes yes I’m very late to be publishing my cultural highlights from 2017 so I’ll keep it pithy. Experience wise being part of The Bush Theatre’s Project 2036 was an important thing for me. But in terms of my cultural highlights, in no particular order my faves were:

Theatre

Wonderfully all but one of these are written by women. Some EVEN had female directors:

This Restless House – Zinnie Harris (Lyceum Theatre)
Lions and Tigers – Tanika Gupta directed by Pooja Ghai (Sam Wannamaker Playhouse)
The Interrogation of Sandra Bland – Mojisola Adibayo (Bush Theatre #BlackLivesBlackWords)
Glory on Earth – Linda McLean (Lyceum Theatre)
The Great Tamer – Dimitris Papaioannou (Avignon Festival)

It would be arrogant to also put The Scar Test my play here, as I wrote it but I was very happy it was produced this year at Soho Theatre and very proud of all the brilliant women (and the odd clever chap too) involved in bringing it to the stage.

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TV

Handmaid’s Tale (of course)
Broken
Quacks

Yup those were the special ones for me in 2017 🙂

 

Highlights from December 2017

My December highlights are child’s play to choose… in that all of them are plays for young people.

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The first is the RSC’s new Christmas Carol adapted by David Edgar. You might think Dickens for Christmas is a bit chocolate box but not in this version. Not at all. It’s an angry social commentary, urgent and relevant to now. Time and again I was struck by different brilliantly resonant lines, at one point Marley says to Scrooge (in a wonderful performance by Phil Davis):

“We are all dead if we can’t see ourselves in the hundreds, the thousands” – this gave me tingles. Hopefully a few politicians will see this one… It continues until 4 February so do get to Stratford Upon Avon if you can (Tory MP or not).

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Next was a magical panto – Rapunzel at Theatre Royal Stratford East. I took mini-me and she and I both adored it, she for Baby Bear and the songs, me for the brilliant performances and cheeky winks to adult culture (the witch makes her potions in a Winnebago with walls covered in post-its in a nod to Breaking Bad). I can safely say a new tradition has been born and I’ll be taking my daughter to TRSE for panto every year from now on.

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Finally I travelled to the Lyceum for a taste of Arabian Nights. Suhayla El-Bushra’s clever adaptation makes the naughty stories work for a young audience without straying too far from the spirit of the original work which winds stories into stories in a magical kaleidoscope. Once again there’s great songs, lovely performances, plus here the addition of talking goats to make a classic Christmas show. It was super.

In January I’ve already been to the Arab Theatre Institute’s Festival in Tunis – what a place… my Jan Highlights blog is already writing itself…

Highlights from October 2017

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I’m a bit late to post this month – no way a reflection on some of the excellent stuff I’ve seen.

There was a mesmerising production of Dido Queen of Carthage at the RSC Swan in Stratford. Now I can’t pretend Marlowe’s text isn’t massively problematic (queen drugged by Cupid falls in love with man and gives up everything for him – hardly a feminist text) but it was a beautiful production. I love the Swan and designer Ti Green showed off the space to the full, while Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting was simply sublime – a work of art in its own right.

4000Then I went to Edinburgh – seriously everything I see at the Lyceum is inspiring and pushing the boundaries at the moment and Cockpit was no exception. Incredible programming.  This play is set in a theatre in Germany at the end of the Second World War where displaced persons are being held until they can go back to their countries – whatever is left of them. So far so timely. But what’s astonishing is that it was written by Anglo-Irish playwright Bridget Boland in 1948. Wils Wilson’s compelling production uses the whole theatre and some amazing choral work to bring the brilliant company together to breath life into this forgotten classic. I really hope it gets a further life, it deserves to be seen south of the border and more widely for sure.

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My last choice will surprise no one – at last I’m catching up with one of the most talked about TV shows this year, The Handmaid’s Tale. What a story. Again it feels hideously timely despite being a ‘dystopian future’. I haven’t read Atwood’s novel but I’m glad because I don’t know what is coming next and it is bloody riveting. Amazing performances, beautifully filmed with loads of space to really help you put yourself in the character’s shoes and let the full weight of what is happening to them settle on you. It’s deeply disturbing viewing (you need a glass of wine) and it makes you think about the world in a new way. Earth-shattering stuff.

I’ve already had to cancel two November theatre outings because of sinusitis, but I’m hoping to get to the cinema to see the new Armando Ianucci film which I’m excited about and I’ve also discovered an excellent new comedy on Netflix…

Highlights from September 2017

My highlights this month comprise a play and two TV comedies – unusual for me.

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I saw Thebes Land at the Arcola early in the month – I had heard great things about it when it was first produced last year. I missed it then so had no intention of doing so again. And I’m so glad I did see it, a properly theatrical ride, featuring two astonishing performances. I’m not saying anything more than that because I think if you go to see it (and you should – you’ve until 7 October) it’s best to know literally nothing – have no expectations. That was how I saw it and it was all the better for the surprise.

p05b8x1rNext the very brilliant Quacks, a BBC Two comedy following the progress of four young medical pioneers in the daring and wild days of Victorian medicine. Go for Rory Kinnear stay for Lydia Leonard, Tom Basden and Matthew Baynton not to mention James Wood’s scorching script. I had high expectations from the writer of Rev and they were exceeded. Brilliant stuff – I do hope it gets a second series (I’ve already watched the initial six episodes twice!)

Finally Channel 4’s Back. Another cracking cast fronted by Mitchell and Webb with the additional and delightful comedy stylings of Olivia Poulet, Penny Downie and Louise Brealy. And Simon Blackwell’s writing – sublime, the one-liners had me cackling.

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October brings Dido at the RSC, Unknown Island at the Gate and Beowulf at the Unicorn… exciting.

Highlights from August 2017

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Another month another festival (lucky me!): in August – Edinburgh. Here two of my highlights were consumed. The third back in London – all three this month are plays (again).

First up, This Restless House at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. This is technically three plays, as it is Zinnie Harris’s genius reworking of The Orestia. She makes adapting look easy and avoids the usual pitfalls of trying to be too up to the minute, or overly reverential. Instead we get a haunting  and compelling play for today about the sins of the parents being visited on the children, and in Dominic Hall’s ballsy production all the elements are perfectly in tune: performances, music, design, lighting – all mesmerising – I was broken afterwards and I won’t forget it. If you can get to the Citizens in Glasgow to see it before it closes (on 9 September) you must. I really hope this one gets further life and comes south of the border.

Next the beautiful, theatrical Nassim, which I saw at the Traverse in a Bush production. I won’t say much about this as the surprise of the performance is what makes it – for audience and performer as it is someone different every time. And like the audience they have no idea what they are in for.  A funny, touching piece about ‘home’ and what that means, catch it (or something else by the excellent Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour) at the Bush in London as part of a retrospective of his work in mid-September.

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Finally, back in London town, I had the delight of seeing Lions and Tigers at the Globe. To my shame I’d never been to the Sam Wannamaker playhouse before this – what a beautiful space it is. And I’m so glad I discovered it through Tanika Gupta’s engaging and relevant play about Indian independence and freedom fighter Dinesh Gupta in a compelling production by Pooja Ghai. The performances are everything in this intimate, candlelit setting and the actors were superb, telling the story with gusto and passion.  It continues until 16 September and you’d be a fool to miss it.

Highlights from July 2017

It goes without saying that my plays The Scar Test (at Soho) and How it Ended (at The Bush) were massive highlights in July. But it was a month where I was entirely spoiled because it culminated with a trip to the Avignon Theatre Festival where there were delights galore.

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We travelled by Eurostar *DIRECT* (this was a wonder) and as we arrived at the walled city I knew this was the start of a love affair for me. It’s the most beautiful place. Full of inventive theatre spaces. Three shows that blew me away while there were:

Les Yeux de Taqqi

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A beautiful children’s show based on a traditional Inuit story about a little boy who can’t see but goes on a quest to find his eyes. Three performers breathed life into some beautiful puppets – it was such a slick and professional piece of work and the storytelling so adept that even with my poor French I not only understood, but laughed and cried at the tale of Taqqi.

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Tout Neuf

Another children’s show with three performers: this gem has no words only music and sounds. The main focus is what looks like a large wooden orange on a stand in the middle of the stage. Each segment is then opened to reveal an unusual musical instrument which is discovered and then played – falteringly at first but then with aplomb – by the hugely talented cast. Children and adults alike were mesmerised with this charming show.

The Great Tamer

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The Great Tamer is a show conceived and directed by Dimitris Papaioannou for 11 performers. It is a strange dreamlike scape of bodies and ideas, moments and magic. There’s no plot or story per se but by god it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen in the theatre – ever. At the risk of sounding pretentious I’ll admit to finding myself crying half way through as I realised that I could still be THAT excited by a piece of theatre after 20 years of theatregoing. I can’t say much more than that. Or I don’t want to – I want you to go and see it yourself because my description will never be as good as the real thing. It’s on a world tour currently but criminally is not coming to London. If you are curious check out the trailer but it’s not for the faint hearted and contains lots of nudity. You can see it here: https://vimeo.com/221573027

Boy what a show – I’m still recovering. Hopefully I’ll be fully recovered before my next Festival – Edinburgh at the end of the month…

Highlights from June 2017

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As well as rehearsing for my play The Scar Test (which runs at Soho Theatre until 22 July) I also found further cultural satisfaction (blessed are the babysitters).

Firstly a reading at the stunning Mosaic Rooms in Earls Court of the brilliant Hassan Abdulrazzak’s new play Maroon. A thought-provoking, engrossing play dealing with tough themes in an incredible entertaining way. And what actors! Robin Soans, Sirine Saba, Jaz Deol and Seven K Greene. Can’t wait to see a full production of that one.

Then I went to Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court (pictured at top). What a show. It deals with suicide but also post natal depression. What I loved so much was the way the fragmented form of the play disoriented the audience and made your brain work in a strange new way much as I imagine such a mental health condition might. The performances were stunning (Kate O’Flynn and Adelle Leonce so intense and watchable; Hattie Morahan and Paul Hilton – just astonishing, gut wrenching as they desperately tried and failed to communicate with one another). Katie Mitchell’s directing is masterful (of course). I’m still reeling from that one and expect I will be for some time to come.

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And then a telly. Jimmy McGovern’s Broken. The other half had to force me – I suspected it would be a misery-fest and I couldn’t really face it. But after some gentle persuasion I girded my loins and put on iPlayer. And I’m delighted I did.

It’s a state of the nation piece, masterfully written and performed – not just by key figure Sean Bean but the supporting cast are incredible. And what makes me even happier is that in every single episode there was a brilliant actor who I have worked with in the past and who is on my list to work with again. It’s so satisfying when great actors get to do great work.

July has been mad with my plays at Soho and the Bush and I’m off to the Avignon theatre festival at the end of the month so expect a blog about Le théâtre très bientôt…

Highlights from May 2017

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May was another bumper month culturally for me in a personal and wider way too. Not only did my new play The Scar Test (which opens at Soho Theatre in July) go into rehearsal with a cracking team on board, I also saw two astonishing pieces of theatre and made a film:

First up I went to The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth at the Royal Court. Directed by Sam Mendes it has a massive cast including a host of young children and is set in Northern Ireland at the height of ‘the Troubles’. I had my reservations before I saw it – could the writer pen anything to rival his amazing play Jerusalem? Also even though I saw an early performance there was already a lot of buzz about it – could it live up to the hype? For me it really did – amazing performances, nuanced writing encompassing the poetry and drama we all know to expect from classic Irish plays, plus a deeply compelling personal and political story. It did the thing great historical plays should – made me draw comparisons with today and none as stark as the conflict of how best to fight oppression
– peacefully with the pen or with direct action and even violence. The plight of the Irish Hunger strikers is also referred to in the play and it made me think about similarities with the current Palestinian hunger strikers imprisoned in Israel. I found it so compelling that as soon as I got home I booked to see it again – you don’t get much higher praise than that.

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Next, another historical play, this time at the beautiful Lyceum in Edinburgh: Glory on Earth by Linda McLean tells the story of a young Mary Queen of Scots and her early days after returning to Scotland from France when she met John Knox – the man considered the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He hated Mary and everything she stood for. This beautiful piece of theatre imagines those days and meetings with Knox and Mary and her ladies in waiting (here a chorus of Marys) and we get the very distinct feeling that from the outset the poor woman’s fate was sealed. The way David Grieg’s production playfully portrays this world as a fusion of then and now with oversized ruffs, embroidered boots and the court dancing to Christine and the Queens is so delightfully imaginative. I learned something new and I was massively entertained. What’s more it’s so rare see a play that’s all females on stage (as this was – all bar one) that I left feeling hugely inspired. It’s a brilliant production and one worth travelling for.

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Finally I have to include my short film. I wrote The Record a couple of years ago and won the Tommy Vine screenwriting Award at the Underwire film festival – which was some money towards making it. Thanks to my brilliant producers and SHH productions a dream team was pulled together including two young and incredibly talented actresses who withstood two gruelling days of filming like the pros they are. I was a wreck, barely slept the night before flapping about on set like a fifth wheel. Long and short is it’s going to be brilliant despite my involvement! Watch this space …