The Funeral Director, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ***
Rendition, Roxy, Edinburgh ****
The Browning Version, Eastgate, Peebles ****
It’s a strange thing to say to her old school friend Ayesha, a British-born Asian who is made to feel like a foreigner in her own home town far too often; but in Iman Qureshi’s award-winning 2018 play The Funeral Director, the cultural gap between Ayesha’s local Muslim community and what passes for mainstream British society is an all-pervasive theme, driving a plot with all the narrative energy of a high-class soap-opera, and vivid, instantly relatable characters to match.
The story revolves around a single incident in which Ayesha – who has inherited a Muslim undertakers’ business from her late mother, and runs it along with her husband Zeyd – is confronted by a young white man, Tom, desperately seeking a funeral for his gay Asian partner, who has just taken his own life. Ayesha and Zeyd turn him away, afraid of being boycotted by the conservative Muslim community. The situation grows more tense when Tom sues them for discrimination; and more intense again when Janey’s return to the town reignites Ayesha’s own strong lesbian feelings, suppressed for more than a decade.
The resulting painful crisis is handled in slightly clunky style in Hannah Hauer-King’s production, despite three memorable performances from Aryana Ramkhalawon as Ayesha, Assad Zaman as Zeyd and Francesca Zoutewelle as Janey. If it’s the story of the bitter and heartbroken Zeyd that remains most tantalisingly unresolved at the end, though, the whole play certainly unfolds in fine dramatic style, and highlights not only an area of profound tension and negotiation in our society, but also some of the ways in which those tensions might eventually be resolved.
If Asians born in Britain are tired of being “othered”, it’s partly because they know where that othering can lead, if it goes unchallenged. Freda O’Byrne’s remarkable 45-minute show Rendition is a profoundly moving piece of total theatre in which she seeks to evoke both the politics, and the subjective human experience, of the period following the 9/11 attacks of 2001, when the British government became complicit in the rendition and torture of prisoners who were arrested and taken, without trial, around a global network of airports to places of torment like the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.
O’Byrne and her team use text by Sylvia Dow, alongside movement, sign language, puppetry, and a beautiful series of small installations, to convey the absolute abuse of basic human rights and decencies to which the victims of this process were subjected. There is also recorded sound, in which British politicians like Tony Blair and Jack Straw protest that the British government never colludes with torture; but after this beautiful, exquisitely made show, driven by a quiet but fierce sense of humanity and compassion, their words ring frighteningly hollow.
For all the huge superficial differences, there’s a strange affinity between Terence Rattigan’s 1948 play The Browning Version – now revived by Rapture Theatre for the second of their three spring lunchtime tours to venues outside big city centres – and Qureshi’s Funeral Director. The ageing schoolteacher at the centre of Rattigan’s drama, Andrew Crocker Harris, is essentially a scholar, and a man whose passions are certainly not directed towards women. Yet he has married a beautiful, sensual woman in his wife Millie; and like Ayesha, he feels ever-increasing guilt towards a marriage partner whom he cannot fully love, and on whom he has inflicted tremendous unhappiness.
It’s a measure of the strength of Rattigan’s play, though, that as well as exposing the misery of the Crocker Harris marriage, it also deals brilliantly with so many other issues surrounding the end of professional life, from the petty humiliations visited on Crocker Harris by his boor of a headmaster, to his famously touching moment of connection with the schoolboy Taplow, who brings him a parting gift; and the packed lunchtime audience at the Eastgate in Peebles were absolutely gripped by Michael Emans’s impressive production, which features a cast of seven, a fine central performance from Robin Kingsland, and a brief star turn from Michael Mackenzie, excelling himself as the “terrible old phoney” of a headmaster who understands nothing of Crocker Harris’s pain, or of his immense frustrated brilliance.
The Funeral Director and Rendition, final performances tonight; The Browning Version is at Harbour Arts Centre, Irvine, today, and East Kilbride Arts Centre tomorrow.