Here’s an interview with Nirjay Mahindru and Iqbal Khan about Mahindru’s new play, Golgotha. I found the section about British Asian writing motivations and expectations chime with my own thoughts, and here they are:
What inspired the play?
NM: It was very simple. When I started writing it quite a few years ago, and unfortunately even now, there were not that many interesting or leading roles for British Asian performers. So I thought, instead of moaning about it, why not create them myself?
You have both written or been involved with work that has challenged assumptions. Is that the first thing you look for when taking on a project?
IK: Yes. From my perspective as a director, but also as a theatre-goer, the ideal experience is one where you in some way change something in an audience’s thinking when they leave. You won’t change the world overnight. The most significant thing is just to alter perspectives a little, if you can – to challenge any complacent notions people might have come into the theatre with is absolutely central to everything I do.
NM: I echo what Iqbal just said. Also, fundamentally, I want to be able to explore the things that interest me. One of the problems of being – for want of a better phrase – a British Asian writer is that there does seem to be an expectation that what you write about will be all things British Asian. OK, Golgotha does explore themes that deal directly with the British Asian experience. But there are many themes and subjects that interest me that have absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the British Asian experience. I hope we are in a cultural place where writers like me can write such plays without theatres or commissioners turning round and asking, ‘Where’s the Asian angle?’
Is that still a pressure?
NM: Sub-consciously or otherwise, you are sometimes expected to be a spokesperson – because whether we like it or not, theatre is still perceived as the exclusive domain of a particular group of people within society. It’s still very difficult to convince certain communities that theatre belongs to them just as much as it belongs to anybody else. Peter Cheeseman, a fantastic theatre director from Stoke-on-Trent who totally influenced me, once said to me: ‘If a member of the public walks into the theatre and feels uncomfortable, even before they’ve bought a ticket, the theatre has already failed that person.’ All of us who work in theatre have an obligation to ensure that everybody feels that it belongs to them. And we still haven’t moved to a situation where people do feel that.
Do you see any cause for optimism in that regard?
IK: I think the argument’s been won, intellectually. Producers and the guys that run the theatres have been persuaded by the argument for inclusivity. It’s more about how they deliver, and that’s the difficult bit. It often means getting writers like Nirjay in to talk, initially, to a very specific group and then, when they have some status, giving them a broader remit. It takes a while to demonstrate to people who have convinced themselves that the theatre isn’t for them, that it’s exclusive of them, that this isn’t the case anymore. But I have enormous cause for optimism. It wasn’t dictated to me that I needed to do something Asian with A Much Ado About Nothing, it was something I chose to do. Now, there are 21 actors who have had the RSC experience and might potentially be asked to come back there in a different context. And all now have the confidence of having played important roles on that stage.