The Diversification of ChoiceDate: 7 July 2003
The cultural & ethnic make-up of the UK, not to mention Salford, has changed drastically since 1916 when Harold Brighouse wrote Hobson's Choice. Tanika Gupta explains how she adapted this classic English comedy for a modern British audience.
It was the Young Vic's artistic director David Lan who suggested that I write a new version of Hobson's Choice. I leapt at the chance having always loved the play and having seen so many resonances in the story with the dynamics of first and second-generation immigrant family life.
When Harold Brighouse wrote Hobson's Choice in 1916, the Salford community he described was predominantly white and working class; now there's a large Asian community there. Taking this into account, my main aim was to recontextualise and reanimate the play with a simple shift of cultural perspective. Same play; new vitality; and therefore, hopefully a new audience. Keeping the comedy alive and the play still firmly planted in Salford, I moved it to a contemporary setting.
Hobson and his daughters slipped with ease into a Bengali-Hindu background living in a multi-cultural society. Henry Horatio Hobson thus became transformed into the Asian patriarch Hari Hobson, who adopted the name of the shop he bought in Salford, in 1967. He held onto firm beliefs on caste, religion, social status and the (subservient) status of women whilst at the same time seeking to assimilate.
Perhaps the boldest decision I took was to transpose the play's setting from a cobbler's shop to a tailor's (inspired in part by the fact that Brighouse himself came from a textile family). Even today, Asians of all classes still prefer to have their outfits tailored, and there's a rather uncomfortable dichotomy between the modern glamorous Asian catwalk fashion industry and the behind-the-scenes reality of sweatshop labour. Will Mossop's oppressed working class cobbler of 1880 easily resonates with Ali Mossop's downtrodden tailor of 2003. After all, sweatshop labourers are not only found in Indonesia and Malaysia but here in the UK too.
For me, one of the most interesting characters in the play was that of Maggie Hobson (Durga in my version). Conceived at a time when the suffragettes were campaigning for votes for women, she comes across now as a modern feminist. She stands up for herself, turns the tables on her domineering father and secures her future, even finding love along the way. Always anxious to dismiss stereotypes, I took the opportunity to root Durga in present-day reality and to portray her as a feisty, clever and ambitious Asian woman - not an old maid, but a canny businesswoman.
At the end of the day, all stories are universal. Hobson's Choice can be read on a variety of levels: it's a play about the battle between the generations, the hypocrisy of a domineering father, the fight for a daughter to assert herself, the underdog winning the day or even, simply a tale of a family business. These themes still make absolute sense in a modern setting and they could work equally well in any cultural setting. By making the Hobson family Asian, I hope that it will open the play out to a new audience and thus continue the good work of the Young Vic.
And Young Vic associate artist Ruth Little explains how a consideration of its audience's cultural diversity informs - and derives from - the theatre's own approach to programming...
Maybe we're in a fortunate position here at the Young Vic, in that the community on our doorstep is truly diverse; over one hundred and thirty languages are spoken by the children who go to school in Lambeth and Southwark, and over a third of the population is from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background.
Our primary aim is to make the theatre a welcoming and stimulating place for young audiences and younger theatre artists; the joy of being situated where we are is that youth equals diversity. But, as David Lan points out, the process of building audiences is 'deeply embedded' at the Young Vic. You have to work at it - at establishing relationships of trust and familiarity with local schools, colleges and community groups - but once those relationships are in place, then anything is possible, show by show, year by year.
Our recent revival of Langston Hughes' Harlem musical comedy Simply Heavenly had long queues for returns every night, and the people in those queues were black, white, young, old, habitual theatre-goers and young first-timers coming on our free ticket scheme for local schools and residents. In our productions of both classical plays and contemporary classics, we try to restore the living connection between the play and the audience that existed in Shakespeare's time. We think plays resonate when we allow both their historical 'strangeness' and their contemporary relevance to coexist.
With that in mind and given the changed nature of Salford since Brighouse wrote Hobson's Choice some 87 years ago, it seemed only right and proper to invite Tanika Gupta, one of our foremost British Asian authors, to re-examine this quintessential English comedy for today. Working in a similar vein, director Rufus Norris brought strong Celtic rhythms and idioms to the language of Lope de Vega's 17th-century Spanish peasants in Peribanez: this was Britain speaking, feeding 400 years of European history directly into our shared present. Where big ideas are communicated with immediacy and originality, and where the production reflects, in its casting and in its conception, the range of cultural and social experiences it describes, then diverse audiences will follow.
Only fossilised theatre is exclusive theatre. Open plays up to the energy of the moment; bring to them the actors, writers, directors and designers whose multiplicity of cultural experiences and creative approaches genuinely reflects our times, and they'll live and breathe, and bring the best and most varied audiences into being.
Hobson's Choice continues its limited London season at the Young Vic until 9 August 2003 and then embarks on a seven-week regional tour, running from 28 August to 11 October 2003 and visiting Oxford, Salford, Cheltenham, Nottingham, Poole and Warwick.