Ayub Khan Din’s strongly autobiographical play East is East (subsequently turned into a 1999 movie) about a mixed race family growing up in 1970s Salford, arrives in Glasgow this week.
Over-bearing patriarch George (Genghis) Khan is a man desperately trying to keep alive his cultural traditions, but only succeeding in losing his grip on his seven children whose fundamental desire is to be normal British teenagers. George’s answer to his woeful lack of control is to lash out at all around him: bullying his children into arranged marriages; beating his wife, despairing at his daughter’s clothing “she looks like a prostitute” he cries, “it’s her school uniform” replies her mother.
The laughs on the surface of this work sit on much deeper foundations: there are deliberations on identity, what is it like to be neither this nor that – British, Muslim, Pakistani? Perfectly illustrated by the famous lines: “Mam, quick, the Pakis are here!” and “if you want to be a Paki move to Bradford”. But fundamentally this is a play about family and the love that underpins all, and the struggles here, to a greater or lesser extent, can be heard in most households up and down the land.
For all the comedy and genuine laugh out loud moments, it is a work that also cleverly manages to prompt us into asking just what has changed since both the setting of this work in 1971 and today – so much and yet so little.
The success of East is East can be attributed to two things: the fact that the writing comes from a place of authority; Khan Din’s first hand experiences colour the whole narrative and as such, it has the ring of truth about it, that coupled with a brace of glorious performances from this exceptional ensemble cast, makes the whole thing irresistible.
A thoroughly satisfying evening at the theatre with first-rate writing and an absolutely top-notch cast, miss it and miss out.
It’s easy to be blinded by James McAvoy’s mercurial performance in Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, and indeed it’s one of the finest central performances I’ve witnessed on a West End stage, but this is a play that is not without its (considerable) faults.
Whilst there are parallels still there to be drawn, this 1968 satire has dated badly (cobweb covered members of the House of Lords, Marxist speechifying, quite frankly unfunny slapstick). Its absurdity and surreal tone sits somewhat uncomfortably with an audience more used to their drama being served up more naturalistically. However, if seeing James McAvoy in his underpants riding across the stage on a unicycle with the words “God Is Love” penned on his chest, his tutu wearing father accidently killing himself in a game of auto-erotic asphyxiation or the ensemble spontaneously bursting into a music hall ditty – then this is the play for you.
McAvoy is the 14th Earl of Gurney, newly returned to inherit the family estate but quite clearly one step beyond the usual aristocratic eccentricities, he enters clad in a monk’s cloak, claiming to be Jesus, leaping on and off a gigantic wooden cross, his family then do their utmost to disinherit him.
Whilst there are moments of genuine comedy and chuckles of recognition at the upper classes getting away with what they’ve perpetually gotten away with, there are things that sit most uncomfortably; the treatment of mental illness, the glib, stereotypical, throwaway and downright cruel representation of something that statistics state affects 1 in 4 people in the UK, just isn’t palatable today.
What saves the whole endeavour is McAvoy. His energy is mesmerising, burning like an incandescent flame from start to end, and I’m sure like many more who witnessed this performance, I personally can’t wait to see him on a West End stage again soon – just not in a Peter Barnes’ play.
Jamie Lloyd’s trimmed version of Richard III is a bold, bloody re-interpretation of the Bard’s classic tale.
Transplanting the action to the 1970’s and Britain’s own “winter of discontent” isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem and is more than a clever joke: with its climate of strikes, political plotting and military coups it adds an air of relatability to the narrative.
Soutra Gilmour’s maze-like set, comprising two long opposing desks and all the paraphernalia of a busy government office: fax machines, clunky telephones and typewriters, does much to heighten the claustrophobic atmosphere of the production and limits both the playing area and movement of the polyester-clad actors. The surprising and menacing tricks in both the staging and the sound design from Ben and Max Ringham are particularly effective additions to the production too.
Martin Freeman ably heads up an accomplished cast. His dapper, controlled and contained Richard is utterly watchable: enemies are dispatched with cold efficiency, lines are delivered with machine-gun speed and a sharp-edged wit, however, if any criticism is to be made of his performance then it must be said that it lacks a little of the menace and magnetism that the role requires. Richard is a seducer of both those he needs in order to fulfil his ambitions and of the audience and Freeman is just a tad too reserved to achieve that.
Freeman is more than ably supported by the rest of the excellent cast, in particular Jo Stone-Fewings as the Duke of Buckingham and the always watchable Gina McKee who delivers a nicely pitched performance as Queen Elizabeth.
In this staging the violence is particularly violent: one enemy is drowned in a fish tank, another dispatched, strangled by a telephone cord and the blood spills freely around both the stage and the audience. For all the gore there is much humour in the production and credit must go to Jamie Lloyd and indeed, Martin Freeman for managing to make the famous, “A horse! A horse!” speech fit in this setting.
Lloyd’s edited version trims the playing time to a neat two and a half hours and loses little in doing so. This is a worthy adaptation that will doubtless attract a new audience to Shakespeare’s work and that is never a bad thing
You have opened in the eagerly anticipated Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios; how did the rehearsals go?
Rehearsal were very lively! We really attacked this play from the first day with a combination of intense movement workshops, voice and text work and sheer gusto in making bold and risky choices. Every day was full of surprises! A lot of energy was needed.
Allison in rehearsal for Macbeth. Picture credit Johan Persson.
How did you prepare for your roles as Lady MacDuff and as one of the infamous Witches?
I prepared my portrayal of Lady MacDuff and also one of the Witches with a huge amount of research. As we are setting our production in a post apocalyptic/dystopian Scotland the choices had to be very true and pertaining to the time. I decided to make Lady MacDuff a very strong character. She is no pushover, very earthy with a very strong self of herself and what is right. Which made me lean towards making her a peaceful political activist trying to fight against Macbeth’s tyranny. My Witch on the other hand has no soul or moral compass and for that I explored soldiers with post traumatic stress syndrome and the dark arts which was really interesting. The questions brought up in rehearsals were ‘are the witches mortal; have they witnessed battle themselves; have they sold their soul to gain power; are they the voice of fate?’ which was so interesting to explore.
Do you think being Scottish yourself you have more of an understanding of the heart and soul of Macbeth?
I don’t think being Scottish makes me have more of an understanding of the heart of the play. It’s a play of our times with a dictator, bloodshed and tyranny. It’s happening all over the world and could be set anywhere, even present day Syria. It’s beautiful to hear the language spoken in the Scots dialect though.
What can we expect from Jamie Lloyd’s new adaptation of the “Scottish Play”?
Jamie Lloyd has created a no holds barred Macbeth. It is visceral, bloody and moves at a ferocious pace. When speaking to audience members afterwards they feel they’ve been taken to hell and back and are absolutely exhausted watching it. They usually need a stiff drink or two to recover!
James McAvoy and Jamie LLoyd in Macbeth rehearsals.
You are a familiar face in Scotland but can you tell our readers in the rest of the UK a bit about your background?
My background lies in all mediums of performance. From being in Glasgow Schools Youth Theatre as a young girl, to studying for 3 years at Drama School to then heading to Dundee Rep as part of their ensemble company for a year where I was nominated for Best Actress at The Theatre Management Awards for Sally Bowles in Cabaret. I then moved to London to concentrate on TV and film which brought me back to Scotland after a couple of years to play Joanne Rossi in River City. I decided to leave after 4 years to head back to my first love which is theatre. I’ve been really busy the last couple of years with two feature films being released and well as appearing on TV and stage.
You’ve appeared on television, film and on stage, what career ambitions would you still like to fulfill?
I have lots of ambitions I would like to fulfill. Always improving my craft is one of them. Consistently taking risks in the parts I play and working with creative and wonderful actors, writers and directors is fundamentally most important.
What advice would you give to someone contemplating a career as an actor?
If you are thinking of becoming an actor I would advise you to go to drama school and train. It really serves you well in your career and opens lots of doors and believe in yourself! there are a lot of knock backs in this profession and you need to have the wisdom and gumption to know that you may not have been right for that particular part but you’re next job is just round the corner. Have faith!
What have you got planned for the rest of 2013 and beyond?
2013 has started off very well and long may it continue! I am about to start filming for the second series of Line of Duty which stars fellow Scottish actor Martin Compson, Robert Lindsay, Keeley Hawes and Jessica Raine. Written by Jed Mercurio it was BBC Two’s biggest new drama series for 10 years, series two will feature a new police corruption story told over six one-hour episodes. After that – well basically I’m very excited as to where the year will take me!
Finally, can you describe yourself in three words?