A stage version of Hanif Kureishi’s startlingly prescient 1995 novel, “The Black Album,” about the early days of Muslim fundamentalism in late 1980s Britain, is in principle an inspired idea. But Jatinder Verma’s rendering of the author’s own adaptation is disappointingly flat. The production fails to find a stage equivalent for the entertaining, swirling immediacy of Kureishi’s prose, and most unforgivably, it loses the mordant humor through which the writer offered commentary on his subject matter. The central gag of bumbling Muslim neo-extremists believing Allah is contacting them via patterns on a cooked slice of eggplant, for example, barely raises a giggle.
Story follows the adventures of Shahid (Jonathan Bonnici), a privileged second-generation Pakistani-Briton, as he arrives in London for university. He finds himself torn between Muslim extremism, via a group of students led by charismatic Riaz (Alexander Andreou), and Western liberal hedonism, embodied by lecturer Deedee Osgood (Tanya Franks), with whom Shahid embarks on an affair. He also is forced to referee between his debauched brother Chili (Robert Mountford) and waspish sister-in-law Zulma (Shereen Martineau), whose unapologetic embrace of capitalism illustrates another aspect of British-Asian life in the dying days of Thatcherism. A crisis emerges in the form of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” which Riaz and his followers support and Deedee decries.
Revisiting this material post-9/11 — and after the 7/7 London bombings — is thought-provoking and useful. It brings us back to early experiences of South Asian and Indian immigrants to Britain and offers context for the birth of extremism as both a reaction to racism and an attempt by newcomers to root themselves culturally and spiritually.
The novel’s success lies in Kureishi’s ability to use Shahid as a central point around which strands of action and ideas whirl, while still maintaining a critical voice by telling the story in the third person. Crucially, the production lacks this sense of outside perspective. It’s presented as a series of scenes set in one small playing area, which alternately represents Shahid’s digs, Deedee’s grunge-chic apartment and various university sites, with location changes signaled by Tom Hadley and Sara Nestruk’s projections.
Increasingly, as the story progresses, events become less realistic, with characters popping up implausibly to deliver only a few lines, but Verma does not take this as a cue to deviate from a style of fairly straightforward naturalism.
Co-presented by Verma’s Tara Arts company and the National Theater, the production embarks on a U.K. tour after its London run, which doubtless accounts in part for its stripped-back, simple feel. But there’s also clearly an imagination deficit.
Performers almost always adopt fixed tableaux, from which individuals step forward (or, oddly, if they’re women, hop up on chairs) to deliver their lines in a slightly heightened manner, as if knowingly doing a “turn.” It’s unclear, however, if this is intended as a commentary on the characters taking on roles artificial to themselves. Style both of writing and direction does not promote characters coming across as more than types, though the cast struggles admirably to infuse them with individuality.
A final coup de theatre in which Shahid and Deedee’s happy ending is fast-forwarded into a disturbing contemporary context adds a welcome — but way too belated — jolt of energy into this otherwise underpowered evening.
Jonathan Bonnici portrays Shahid, in London for university, who is torn between Muslim extremism and Western liberal hedonism.