Lift­ing the veil on faith pol­i­tics in the class­room

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment - JOHN NATHAN

WHAT FA­TIMA DID…

Hamp­stead The­atre, Lon­don NW3

THE HAMP­STEAD The­atre is fizzing with an en­ergy all too rarely seen at this venue in re­cent times. The rea­son? Twenty-one-year-old Atiha Sen Gupta, the youngest play­wright to make a de­but on the Hamp­stead’s stage.

This Bri­tish-born daugh­ter of a Sri Lankan fa­ther and In­dian mother has cast her athe­is­tic eye on re­li­gious pol­i­tics, and al­though the ar­gu­ments in her play are not new, they are so freshly wrought and ar­tic­u­lately ex­pressed that What Fa­tima Did... is an es­sen­tial con­tri­bu­tion to the rag­ing ar­gu­ment over re­li­gious sym­bols and whether they should or should not be al­lowed in state schools.

And what did Fa­tima do? She started the sum­mer school hol­i­days as an un­re­mark­able 17-year-old who likes a bit of un­der­age drink­ing and hang­ing out with her boyfriend Ge­orge, only to re­turn the fol­low­ing term wear­ing a hi­jab (the head­scarf worn by Mus­lim women), and re­ject­ing the ir­re­li­gious and im­mod­est teenage life­style of her peers.

And it is the ef­fect on Fa­tima’s peers, as op­posed to Fa­tima her­self, that Gupta’s de­but clev­erly con­cen­trates on.

The play opens on the first day back at school. Becky Gun­stone’s set is a min­i­mal­ist zig-zag of white translu­cent walls. Yet for all the lack of de­tail, this com­pre­hen­sive with its ir­rev­er­ent sixth-for­m­ers is a lot more con­vinc­ing than the frankly ridicu­lous idyll of­fered by Alan Ben­nett’s mon­ster hit The His­tory Boys.

Ben­nett’s fan­tasy holds up a world of sex­u­ally self-con­fi­dent and un­bear­ably ar­tic­u­late ado­les­cents. Gupta’s play is pop­u­lated by peo­ple who live in real-world racial and re­li­gious pol­i­tics — most of it of the post 9/11 kind.

Aisha (Farzana Dua Elahe) can­not be­lieve that a party girl like Fa­tima, aka “the queen of the morn­ing af­ter the night be­fore”, could make such a sud­den change in per­son­al­ity and at­ti­tude. For Fa­tima’s boyfriend, Ge­orge (Gethin An­thony), the ef­fect of the hi­jab is to make the girl he loves “un­know­able”. And no less af­fected, though far more si­lent than the oth­ers about the is­sue, is Fa­tima’s twin brother Mo­hammed (Ar­sher Ali), who is con­flicted be­tween loy­alty to his sis­ter and a deep un­ease at her de­ci­sion.

Much of Gupta’s plot rests on Ge­orge’s flail­ing at­tempt to reignite his re­la­tion­ship with Fa­tima, and much of the drama on the of­fence felt by both Fa­tima and Mo­hammed over Ge­orge’s clumsy ad­vances.

In frus­tra­tion Ge­orge even rips off the hi­jab. But the ker­nel of Gupta’s play is all about how she deals with her cen­tral char­ac­ter, Fa­tima, who we hear of but never hear. She is, in other words, that most ef­fec­tive of the­atri­cal de­vices, the un­seen char­ac­ter.

Now, I would have nor­mally wor­ried about plot-spoil­ing here. Es­pe­cially as the Hamp­stead has gone to all the trou­ble of allocating a phan­tom ac­tress to the role of Fa­tima in the cast list, pre­sum­ably in the hope of con­ceal­ing the play’s struc­ture from the au­di­ence for as long as pos­si­ble.

But not only is it pretty ob­vi­ous af­ter the first two or three scenes that Fa­tima is an un­seen char­ac­ter — in a cack-handed con­tra­dic­tion to all that ef­fort, the pro­gramme also con­tains an in­ter­view with Gupta in which she talks about the very de­vice the other part of the pro­gramme at­tempts to hide.

Still, once we have grasped the con­ceit, it is in­ter­est­ing to see how this young play­wright and Kelly Wilkin­son’s su­perbly acted pro­duc­tion sus- tains the idea. Some scenes do the job more con­vinc­ingly than oth­ers. And for hu­mour Gupta re­lies too much on a run­ning joke about the group’s thickie, Stacey (Bunmi Mo­jekwu does a good job with a stereo­type), who is al­ways ready with a dumb one-liner.

But else­where it is Gupta’s tal­ent for a telling line that marks her out as a one to watch. “She looks like a fun­da­men­tal­ist post box,” com­plains Fa­tima’s mother, who is ap­palled that her daugh­ter has adopted the very sym­bol of pa­tri­ar­chal con­trol that she and her mother fought so hard to free them­selves from.

And in the class­room, where the al­most an­noy­ingly tol­er­ant teacher de­fends the hi­jab as a re­li­gious right, the ut­terly west­ern An­glo/Asian Aisha de­clares Fa­tima’s mo­tives to be po­lit­i­cal rather than re­li­gious, and re­jects the no­tion of Mus­lim women “re­claim­ing” the hi­jab on their own terms. “It’s like a Jew re­claim­ing the swastika,” says Aisha.

For­get Alan Ben­nett. There are shades here of some of the great Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal drama­tists — of David Mamet in Gupta’s tackling of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, and of Re­becca Gil­man in her ap­proach to racism. For Gupta, and for the Hamp­stead’s young the­atre com­pany Heat and Light, What Fa­tima Did... rep­re­sents a tri­umphant de­but.

And a tri­umph for the out­go­ing artis­tic di­rec­tor An­thony Clark, too. ( Tel: 020 7722 9301)

Si­mon Coombs as Craig and Farzana Dua Elahe play­ing Aisha in What Fa­tima Did…

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