Ishy Din is not your average Oxbridge-educated playwright. He’s a 43-year-old Middlesbrough taxi driver who started jotting down thoughts inspired by his customers. He never expected much to come of it. ‘But then Tamasha theatre company gave me an opportunity to develop my work,’ he says, ‘so I moved to London and attended workshops. I knew no one so I’d return to my hostel at night and continue working on the script.’
Snookered, Din’s debut play, is set in a snooker hall in an unnamed Northern town. Four Pakistani Muslim boys have met to shoot some pool, swap affectionate expletives, knock back some drinks and remember their dead friend. As tongues loosen, tensions rise and secrets are revealed, the joshing turns nasty. The result is raw, sad and visceral.
‘I’d always wanted to write something about friends getting drunk together,’ says Din, ‘because it was the type of thing I did.’
Over a break in rehearsals, Din and his director, Iqbal Khan, are discussing why men find it so hard to be honest with themselves and why really truthful descriptions of blokes – especially Asian ones – are so hard to find in theatre, film and television.
‘I wanted to show the camaraderie, the wit, the cruelty and the oneupmanship we have, whether playing pool or driving a car,’ says Din, a father of three. ‘My characters are boys trying to become men. It’s about finding your place in modern British society. But underlying all that is a vulnerability. Men can’t admit things to themselves or each other. The play is very Northern in that respect.’
‘Male friendship can be pretty extreme in terms of language and opinions,’ agrees Khan. ‘Maybe it’s a response to the growing strength of women but men these days want to appear very fair. But in private they are as unfair, cruel, funny and as obsessed with sex as women are. We find it entertaining to dramatise those appetites among women but we’re not quite so comfortable doing that in a male context, unless you are Neil LaBute or Patrick Marber.’
Tamasha is an Asian company; Khan’s family comes from Pakistan; Din’s from Kashmir. Din – who has been awarded a bursary by Manchester’s Royal Exchange, yet sees himself as an outsider from British theatre culture – is quick to point out that his gobby, earthy characters are men first and Asian second. Yet while they encounter universal pressures, some of these are specific to Asian communities.
‘Shame is a big thing among Asians and a lot of the boys are dealing with shame in a big way,’ says Khan. ‘One of the characters can’t admit he is having IVF. The specifics for these boys are religion, the pressures of family and the pressures of the tribe. What is your loyalty to the tribe? Or is it better to leave and strike out?’
Din always wanted to confound expectations of what a play about Asian men would be like. He says he owes his punchy, untempered dialogue to the fact he had no idea how people were supposed to speak in plays and wrote what he heard.
‘And I didn’t want to fall into the cliché of arranged marriages,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to go: oh look, this character is going to become a terrorist. Because these subjects are just highlights to sell newspapers. They might be entertaining and simple but they are nothing like the truth. The truth is often more dangerous and exciting.’
‘Because of the times we live in, to represent Asians on TV the way this play does would be dangerous,’ says Khan. ‘It would be an enormous risk because the play doesn’t necessarily give a positive view. The boys say ugly things. Ishy is not uncritical of them. To see four Muslim boys getting hammered is a very radical thing to put in a dramatic context. There is a fear of upsetting, of giving offence.’
Both Khan and Din agree that ‘representing’ ethnic minorities is fraught with difficulty. Characters from ethnic backgrounds often can’t just be themselves, they have to stand for something. Define yourself as an Asian theatre company and people expect a certain aesthetic ‘fingerprint’.
Khan’s own career is varied: he started at Leicester Haymarket and most recently directed Antony Sher in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass.
‘It’s slightly easier in theatre,’ he explains. ‘Take the example of a film such as East Is East. It was great but, in my view, it softened the truth of the play [Khan revived Ayub Khan-Din’s original 1996 comedy at Birmingham Rep in 2009]. To my mind there hasn’t been anything more radical than My Beautiful Laundrette in British film.’
Both Khan and Din are equally cautious about the term ‘Asian theatre’. ‘I just see it all as theatre,’ says Din. ‘It [the term] is a necessary evil,’ says Khan. ‘It’s been necessary to advocate for Asian work – although it feels as though a certain kind of work is still not encouraged. But my life as a theatre director is to just get a script and the best actors and do it as well as I can. What’s wonderful about theatre is that you don’t have to cast types and you can allow people into a story that goes beyond their superficial exterior and appearance.’
Snookered’s British tour starts at Oldham Coliseum on February 2. www.tamasha.org.uk
– Claire Allfree/METRO