Friday, 11 September 2009

The Black Album, National Theatre

Hanif Kureishi's dramatisation of The Black Album at the National Theatre hasn't been well received by critics in comparison with the 1995 novel on which it's based - and I can see where the gaps probably fall (although I haven't read the book yet).

The play tells the story of Shahid, a British-Asian teenager who moves from sleepy Sevenoaks to London in 1989, just as the ecstasy-fuelled rave culture is reaching its zenith. The naive student is soon groomed by a group of Muslim fundamentalists, and feels empowered by the sense of belonging they give him.

However, his love of pop culture - particularly the music of Prince, from whose album the work takes its name - also leads him into the arms of Deedee Osgood, a hedonistic liberal lecturer. Shahid's criminally entreprenurial brother Chili turns up as well, urging him to go out and take what London has to offer.

I have a bit of a weird relationship with Hanif Kureishi's work. I think he's a fascinating commentator on London life, but I tend to enjoy the idea of his dramatic work more than the finished 'product'.

I find his stylised dialogue a bit 'stagey', and it can make his characters seem slightly unrealistic or unconvincing - a problem when his characters are in a very recognisable time and place where a more naturalistic approach might fit better.

Even allowing for the tone of fundamentalist rhetoric, I found myself pulled out of the drama on a few occasions, thinking that people just don't speak like that. Maybe it wasn't helped by some slightly unsubtle performances: Shahid's brother Chili came over more like Boycey from Only Fools and Horses than a young British-Asian man.

It also seemed that Shahid's initial oscillation between the earthly pleasures of London life and the comforting certainty of religious immersion wasn't dramatised as effectively as it could have been. For all the power of drama, I guess that kind of internal psychological dialogue is better suited to the novel.

The claustrophobic set on the tiny Cottesloe stage didn't help, either. Even with emphatic video projections and music, we didn't get much sense of the teeming city into which Shahid had been flung.

Anyway, the more plot-based second half was more satisfying, as the anger over the publication of The Satanic Verses reached boiling point and the characters had to choose where they stood on the complex spectrum of free speech vs censorship.

It was an enjoyable evening, and the issues of cultural identity and radicalisation tackled by the book are clearly as relevant now as they were on publication (the slightly confusing dumbshow that ends the play seems to draw a link between its events and the 7 July bombings). I'll definitely give the book a go.

BBC: rehearsal video and interview with Hanif Kureishi
The Times: interview with Kureishi and director Jatinda Verma
Huffington Post: Hanif Kureishi on the couch
National Theatre: includes video trailer, production gallery

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