Book Life: My Name is… at the Arcola

Last night I was at the Arcola theatre in East London watching the new play by Sudha Bhuchar, ‘My name is…‘.

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The story is closely centred on the true-to-life happenings of a Glaswegian family and how the newspapers came to skew their lives for public consumption. A new play about love, family and ever-shifting identities, My Name is… tells the verbatim story behind a news-story that hit our headlines in 2006 but may reflect truths in the here and now- even eight years later.

 

When 12-year-old Gaby disappeared from her home in the north of Scotland, the media rushed to announce that her Scottish-Pakistani father, Farhan, had kidnapped her. The spiraling headlines were only momentarily silenced when it emerged that Gaby may have fled of her own accord, choosing to spend her life as a young Muslim in Pakistan. To her Scottish mother Suzy’s great distress, Gaby declared, “my name is Ghazala” turning her back on ‘Gaby’ and, seemingly, the West…

The set and theatre was minimal: a slightly raised area surrounded on three sides by bench seating made up of two rows. Bare brick walls all around competed with a cheap white leather sofa (Glasgow) with a slender wooden chair and tea pot. Some magazines and news cuttings strewn around the floor. My friend and I took photos but a stage-hand quickly materialised and insisted we delete them, lest the designer’s copyright (?) be challenged. As a result I had the disconcerting feeling throughout the play that something (anything) on stage was about to zoom out or bust into flames.

The play was minimalist, with just three people on stage: mother, father, daughter. Like the newspapers (or, more likely, because of them) the play only featured the one child, and as such was intense in moments. However, unlike the media, I found “Gabby”s story dull and her father’s take not notable. Like the papers but for different reasons, their mother’s monologue captivating. The actor playing her carried us through her conversion to Islam (in name only), her conversion to Muslim womanhood (in full eventually) and her gradual mental erosion to the point of breakdown. It became a story of two individuals, at least one of whom’s culture did not allow them to play out the narrative of married life that the other needed. Through its sparseness the play made a fool of a media eager to lay racist and nationalist agendas at the door of a family dispute.

However.

The role of the Farhan, and his journey from an Asian-Glaswegian (with a perspective equally balanced between the West and East) to that of a devout Muslim and family man- was explained and done away with the sentence: “the community came to need more of me”. 9/11 is mentioned briefly as factoring in Farhan’s change. Despite the unfurling, modern love-story behind his marriage to Suzy, Farhan’s second marriage and all related preamble took up perhaps two lines.

I would have liked to know more.

“Gabby”, the modern Pakistani girl, painting her nails, wearing her niqab and loving chocolate was too lively, too shiny and did not charm me. Not to be cruel, but I thought her unnecessary- the other siblings, who remained unportrayed actors and lived only in brief mentions and in the empty spaces on the stage provided more melancholy and suggested far more personality than she did. Having said that, when I heard the true person behind the character speaking on Woman’s Hour about the performance, I was really moved: it turns out she had been there in that tiny theatre the same night as I was, and watching the play she had seen in the simulacrum of her parent’s marriage a glimpse of a happy family life she had not been old enough at the time to remember.

To sum up: the play had me talking all the way home, but the conversation could have gone further.

Women’s hour link here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b042jfw3 Image

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