Monthly Archives: December 2009

Spotlight: Kia Abdullah, Author and Journalist

Kia is an author and journalist. She studied Computer Science at Queen Mary, University of London, and switched from a career in information technology to writing. At 24 years old she wrote her debut novel Life, Love and Assimilation, which caused controversy due to its representation of the Bangladeshi community, and at the age of 27 years old she has written her second novel Child’s Play, a psychological crime thriller, which is out now. She also regularly contributes to the Guardian.


What play have you seen recently that you would recommend?
I think Wicked is good for a wide age range. I wish I could name a grassroots production or something more esoteric, but I’m afraid I’m a bit of a bandwagon theatre-goer. The next show I plan to catch is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which I think will be very good.


What early theatrical experience can you remember having an impact on you?
I went to see a ballet at Sadler’s Wells with my primary school when I was about eight or nine years old. It was like entering a completely different world. There we were, an unruly group of working class children, replete with mother tongues and hand-me-downs, suddenly transported to this magical, enchanting place. I remember being transfixed by the sheer beauty of the performers and the intensity of the atmosphere. It showed me that experiences and escapism matter so much more than tangible possessions. To this day, I spend nearly all my money on doing things rather than having things.


How can theatres attract a more young and diverse audience?
The most obvious is to extend bigger discounts to local schools in order to encourage more trips to the theatre. This will expose pupils to a form of entertainment they may not usually choose, be it for cultural or financial reasons. Secondly, we need to increase the visibility of black and Asian writers and actors that are doing something different. Young people from ethnic minorities will always be interested in seeing productions from people like them, but I think they’re tired of the tokenism ubiquitous in mainstream media. We want to see black and Asian characters with full-bodied storylines that have nothing to do with the colour of their skin. If that visibility increases in theatre, I think the interest will come naturally.


Your novel Life, Love and Assimilation caused controversy due to its representation of the Bangladeshi community that included sex scenes, drugs, and abuse. Why do you think black and ethnic minorities are sensitive about representation?

The more voices we hear, the more freedom we’ll have to say what we want with those voices; if there is one gay Muslim in Eastenders, it may be an issue, but if there were ten or twenty Muslim characters across popular programmes, there would be less pressure on the one in Eastenders to be representative of the community. That is not to say that the mainstream media is wholly to blame. Ethnic minority cultures generally put a lot of gravitas on pride and reputation. I think we need to learn how to lampoon ourselves. The day my community can accept an Islamic version of The Life of Brian is the day we can stop worrying about this whole tokenism and sensitivity thing.


Are there different obstacles facing black and ethnic minority writers?
How many successful Asian sci-fi or horror or crime writers do you know? Mainstream publishers seem to only be interested in Asian writers that write sweeping literary novels in the tradition of Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth or gutting misery memoirs about cultural divisions and identity. If you don’t fall neatly into one of those categories, you will struggle. Luckily, I found an independent publisher that shared my mindset; that believed in subverting expectations and taking a risk. Change is slow but it’s on its way.


Child’s Play, on Revenge Ink, is out now.

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Nation, at the National Theatre, Olivier Theatre

promise me you'll never wear trousers

Following the National Theatre’s hit family shows of His Dark Materials, Coram Boy, and War Horse, comes Nation. Mark Ravenhill, who wrote Shopping and Fucking, has with mixed success adapted Terry Pratchett’s novel Nation for the stage.

It is the 1860s and, like The Tempest, the play opens with a tsunami. The young aristocratic Daphne, whose father is 139th in line to England’s throne, meets the handsome leader Mau, who is head of the island, as she is swept ashore. What ensues is a series of funny introductions to customs: Daphne introduces Mau to English tea drinking, “one lump or two”, and Mau introduces Daphne to drinking water, “you must spit in it.”

The play has child-friendly (and somewhat dull) moralising apt for a pre-Christmas show: “It’s hard work to work out who the enemy is,” says Daphne, admitting her own failings in thinking of Mau as a threat to her, since it is the English who are more of a threat to her and the nation on the island. The Victorian women are represented as figures of fun with their traditions, and it’s the island women who have a “woman’s wisdom”, courageousness, and quick thinking. So as Daphne moves from being a Victorian lady to a grass-skirted local, and her father returns, she has to make a decision: love or duty?

Gary Carr as Mau is excellent, and Emily Taaffe as the young teenager Daphne moves from adorable to irritating. The play succeeds with director Melly Still and Mark Friend’s grand stage perfect for an adventure story: it revolves, has three huge screens, and plenty of fairy lights that make the Dante-like underworld look romantic rather frightening. Everything is larger than life: the singing, dancing, puppets, waves, gunshots, statues, and thunder.


This year the National’s Death and the King’s Horseman and The Observer offer warnings about the effects of colonialism in Africa, and Nation does the same but in an unnamed South Pacific Island. The National’s choice of productions can be seen as a warning in itself: black actors are frequently cast off in a colonial past whilst Asian actors are mingling with their modern identity in Black Album or Mixed Up North that is currently playing at the National.


Nation is Pirates of the Caribbean meets Lost, and would wow a young audience with its spectacular set rather than story. What the story shows however is that the Empire, even with its post-colonial guilt, can still strike back. Three times.


Runs till 28 March 2010.


To see or not to see: * * *

Your Bard: Eric on Max Roberts’ The Pitmen Painters

EricEric is 23 years old. He is studying a Phd in Medieval Literature at University College London, University of London. He loves old language, cultural history, and hates anyone who doesn’t like Beowulf. 

 

Describe the play in three words.

Humorous. Poignant. Emotive.

 

What was the best thing about the play? 

The actors, it was a surprise that the cast had not changed since the play premiered. Each actor brings the characters to life vividly from their accents, facial expressions, and even haircuts, it was as though they were tailor made for the parts. The actor playing Jimmy in particular was superb.

 

Who do you think the play would appeal to?

Quite a diverse audience, the play is fairly universal. The characters themselves hail from niches in society, and are very easy to relate to no matter who you may be. I would have to say though that those interested in learning about how and why people appreciate art would find it the most entertaining though.

The Pitmen Painters, at the National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre

i think i'm going to need a bigger pencil

i think i'm going to need a bigger pencil

Billy Eilliot’s recent win of ten Tony Awards in America is a testament to Lee Hall’s brilliance, and how a story largely about class struggle can have a universal appeal. In The Pitmen Painters Hall works his magic on the true story about the Ashington Group in 1934, a group of miners who hire a Durham lecturer to teach them art appreciation. They go on to produce paintings of industrial life that critics love, have exhibitions in London, and gain rapid fame.

How do you appreciate art, and who can appreciate art? These are just some of the questions asked by the play. Feelings are universal, and the groups teacher Mr. Lyon is adamant that “anyone can paint”, meaning so too can anyone, even a miner, appreciate art. The play begins with a humorous first half (when the group are told Helen has come for modern art, one of the members responds “you’ve come to the right place, these were all painted last week”), and it gracefully moves into a poignant second half with Oliver who is artistically gifted but faces challenges with his own class struggle.

 

Hall adapts William Feaver’s book superbly, and Max Robert’s direction is equally good. The staging is stripped down to only five main cast members, five chairs, scattered paintings, and a screen to display work to the audience that the group talk about. The understated set is spot on allowing the high emotion, quick dialogue, and witty remarks to shine.  It is Hall’s characterisation of the group that makes the play: they have a thirst for knowledge, working class spirit, and extreme likeability. The subjects are tackled with great sensitivity, you are never laughing at them, instead you are rooting for the miners to overcome obstacles either imposed by society or upon themselves.

 

Winner of the Evening Standard Best Play award last year, this is a must-see. A beautiful masterpiece. 

 

Runs from 2 December till 18 January 2010. 

 

To see or not to see: * * * * *

 

Read the original review of The Pitmen Painters on the National Theatre’s website here