With Nick Griffin causing mass debate all over the country, The Black Album, by author Hanif Kureishi, is as prominent today as it was when initially prompted back in 1991.
Working in conjunction with director Jatinder Verma, Kureishi transforms his second novel into a drama, whilst sustaining his focus on 80’s society and all of its radical movements. Drug culture, rave music and communist disintegration are all incorporated into the narrative, yet the main focus lies with the notion of a new multi-racial society and the effects of the fatwah against Salman Rushdie in 1989.
In its written form, the piece has been described by critics as ‘funny, truculent and lubricious.’ Dramatised, however, the ability to evoke contrasting emotions is inconsistent. Hearing the satirical humour, rather than responding to it, proves that more time needs to be spent in the rehearsal room on comic timing and rapport between performers. Pitiable, since the play first opened at the National Theatre back in July!
Jonathan Bonnici plays student Shahid Haban well, until the cringe worthy moment he falls for his university tutor, Dedee Osgood (Tanya Franks). The pair have barely kissed before Bonnici is ripping Haban’s belt off and throwing her onto the sofa, leaving no time for sexual chemistry to build and making the ‘couple’ appear forced and awkward.
What is more, too much of the Playhouse’s theatre is left unoccupied, the set, obviously designed for the purpose of touring, being so small that it often makes the mise-en scene look cramped and disorganised. Additionally, actors need to be more aware of sight lines when they are preparing to make their entrance, movements backstage sometimes causing distractions.
Nonetheless, lighting rigs and transitions from scene to scene are impressive, giving the performance pace and avoiding mundane set changes.
Despite its dull characters and equally dreary dialogue, the play must be given credit for raising a topic that is so often treated as taboo. Exploring Islamic fundamentalism alongside Western liberalism, The Black Album deals with conflicting cultural values successfully.
With topic outshining performance, it may be best to simply read Kureishi’s descriptions, his theatrical adaptation unfortunately not giving justice to his critically acclaimed style of writing.