The Black Album, National Theatre, London
Thursday 23 July 2009
It lives on the page but it dies on the stage. That, alas, is the story of Hanif Kureishi's second brilliant novel, The Black Album, which in 1995 picked up on the Salman Rushdie fatwah and the rising cultural phenomenon of British Muslim fundamentalism while cracking open the whole issue of what should form the basis of a liberal, multicultural education programme.
The National's co-production with Tara Arts has its heart in the right place but its judgmental faculties absolutely nowhere.
The basic story is that of the semi-autobiographical character Shahid, who arrives in the Big Smoke from Kent and falls in love (or at least, lust) with his university tutor Deedee Osgood. She lectures about Prince and Madonna while he wants to learn about more serious, mainstream artists.
I love the way in the book Kureishi expresses this tension between an interest in high and popular culture; it invades his writing, and has never been resolved in BBC arts programmes, but nor has he found a way of translating it to the stage. And Shahid's dilemma is one rooted in the tragedy of cultural assimilation, or accumulation.
Jatinder Verma's stunningly prosaic, badly cast and very badly designed (by Tim Hatley) production in the Cottesloe auditorium at the NT – it all looks like a retread of a best forgotten fringe play from about 1979 – brings in messy video back projections, an awful backing track of acid house music, distant sound effects that are totally dislocated from the "live" action, and a complete misunderstanding of the novel's picaresque progression.
The sheer joy of Kureishi's descriptive passages of zooming around London, Muslim brothers finding their voices, weird parties, dodgy co-conspirators (the wonderful young cockney character of Strapper is played by Glyn Pritchard as a superannuated Iggy Pop punk type – with a bald patch) setting targets, is completely befuddled.
So is the sexy, central strain of Shahid's relationship with Deedee, a character stripped in Tanya Franks' performance of her profound significance as an educationalist poised between serious intentions and serious hedonism.
To 7 October (020 7452 3000; www.nationaltheatre.org.uk)
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