Lifting the veil on faith politics in the classroom
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…