Gupta's choice

Tanika Gupta's plays are usually searingly contemporary, but now, as she tells Sam Marlowe, she has brought a classic bang up to date
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The Independent Culture

Tanika Gupta is not on good form. "I feel like shit," she announces, as she sits in a tiny, tatty café in Waterloo, just down the road from the Young Vic. Gupta is being hailed as one of British theatre's brightest new talents. Her last two plays garnered glowing reviews. Inside Out, commissioned by Clean Break, the company that works with women prisoners, wrung tears from its audiences at the tiny Arcola theatre in Dalston, east London, last November. And at the Hampstead Theatre in March, Fragile Earth successfully combined teenage growing-pains and vibrant street-life with a clear-eyed consideration of the pressures of growing up in today's multicultural Britain.

Now, Gupta, 39, has taken on the old rep warhorse Hobson's Choice, Harold Brighouse's 1916 comedy, and reset it in the Asian community of present-day Salford. You'd think that, having moved away from the more serious themes of her recent theatre work, she'd be feeling chipper. But today, she says, she feels hot, sniffly and on the verge of passing out.

Still, she is determined to go on with the interview. "If I make no sense whatsoever, just slap me," she instructs me in a deadpan tone. Her voice is deep and resonant, sometimes dripping with sarcasm, and there's a fierce, almost intimidating intelligence in her dark, kohl-rimmed eyes. But her remarks are often self-deprecating, and, while she is obviously intensely serious about her work, whenever she feels in danger of speaking fulsomely about it, she immediately bursts what she seems to regard as her own bubble of pretension with a pinprick of sharp wit.

She explains, between restorative sips of orange juice, that when the Young Vic's artistic director, David Lan, approached her about doing an adaptation of Hobson's Choice, the idea immediately appealed. Brighouse's play is the tale of a despotic father who runs a boot-making business, mainly through the servitude of his three daughters and his gifted young workman, Willie Mossop. Reluctant to let such cheap labour go, the boozy, idle Hobson refuses to furnish his daughters with dowries. But he reckons without the cunning of his eldest daughter, Maggie, who not only wins herself a man but beats her father in business, too.

Gupta's version makes Hobson's business a tailor's rather than a bootmaker's; and the heroine, Maggie, becomes Durga, named after a Hindu goddess. "It's a romp," says Gupta. "I particularly like the comic take on King Lear and his three daughters. Hobson is such a lazy old fart, a drunk and a hypocrite. And Maggie is so feisty. When Brighouse wrote the play, women didn't even have the vote, so she's the ultimate feminist in a way."

I put it to Gupta that there are vestiges of the period piece in her new version that sometimes make the script uncomfortable reading - as, for example, when Hobson repeatedly tells the 30-year-old Durga that she is too old and ugly to find a husband. "There are dark moments," she concedes. "But I think you often are very cruel to the people that you're closest to. Fathers, particularly, are always cruel to their daughters, aren't they, especially about the way they look. And not necessarily without meaning to be - I think they do it deliberately."

She gives a little snort of mirth. "But it's quite fun to see that side of things in the play, because Durga certainly gets her revenge."

Gupta's own father was a singer, and her mother was trained in classical Indian dance, so she grew up in a creative environment. She says that she would "scribble all the time" from a very early age, but it wasn't until her late twenties that she contemplated writing for a living. She belonged to the Asian Women Writers Collective, through which she heard of the Young Playwrights Festival - a competition run by BBC Radio 4. She submitted a piece, became a finalist, and had her first play produced - "and that's when the doors started opening."

Since then, she has worked extensively in TV, as a jobbing scriptwriter on programmes such as EastEnders and The Bill. "I'm a very disciplined writer - I've got kids, so I have to be. People think that when you work from home, you're sitting musing in the garden while the children play delightfully nearby, but of course the reality is that the minute they're home, you can't do anything."

Gupta has been writing professionally for about a decade, yet she is still regarded as a new face on the theatre scene. The reason is, she says, simply one of economics. "I write pretty much only when I'm commissioned, because I can't afford not to. At the end of the day, it's a job. I write a lot of telly to make a living, but I much prefer working in theatre, because as a writer you're respected. If you're writing for a TV soap, they treat you like dirt. You're expendable."

Gupta has, in fact, been respected in one overt way recently. She has always maintained her dislike of being pigeonholed as an Asian writer, so when she accepted an Asian Women of Achievement award for arts and culture last month, it was with mixed feelings. "I didn't take umbrage when I went up to collect the award," she recalls, "though I did take the piss out of Cherie Blair in her sari." Warming to the anecdote, she goes on: "There was Cherie, Helena Kennedy and Tessa Jowell, all wearing saris. They looked lovely, but Cherie was in white, which is the colour of mourning. A white sari is like widow's weeds. So somebody hadn't done their research!"

She gives another of her curious little laughter-snorts, then suddenly she's all intensity again. "You get these separate awards ceremonies," she says, creasing her brow. "Asian Women of Achievement, the Ethnic Multicultural Media Awards - but then we don't get nominated for the mainstream awards. It still feels very much as if the theatre industry and TV and film really take only their own work seriously - meaning white work. Last time I watched the Baftas, I was amazed at how few black and Asian people there were in the audience, let alone picking up awards. It's shocking."

She feels similarly ambivalent about specialist black and Asian theatre companies, such as Yellow Earth, Talawa and Tara. "I think they can be limiting, but at the same time they serve an important function. These companies sprang up only because there was nowhere else for black and Asian people to train and work. But we should be in the mainstream as well; we should be everywhere - and I think that is beginning to happen, slowly, slowly."

But if Gupta is uncomfortable with the "Asian writer" tag, there's one group to which she is more than happy to belong - the self-styled Monsterists. This band of playwrights, including Roy Williams, Moira Buffini and "our leader, Richard Bean", share a concern about what they see as the circumscribed state of new writing in Britain. "We got fed up with not being able to write plays with more than three or four people in them. We were worried that in this country we're losing our ability to write big plays."

She stops, unable to resist the temptation to debunk herself. "We're just a bunch of wanky writers sitting around complaining. But we do have interesting debates about what's happening, who's in, who's out. As a writer, you spend so much time in your head and disappearing up your own backside, it's nice to discuss things."

Gupta enjoys "plays with good stories, mainly. I'm very bored with plays that have too many men in them. I love men - I'm married to one - but I'm bored with plays about their angst." She got an opportunity to write on an inherently female subject when she was commissioned by Clean Break. The project involved working with the inmates of HMP Winchester. "I'd never been into a prison before. It was phenomenal. Even the air felt different. The women were fantastic, but the prison officers scared me. They look right through you as if you're invisible.

"The women were desperate for any kind of educational work. They had no proper library - just two little bookstands full of Harold Robbins paperbacks. They would beg me to bring in books for them. The only classes they had were needlework and hairdressing." Then comes the inevitable Gupta punchline: "It's criminal."

The play that resulted from Gupta's work in the prison was so harrowing that it had an unforeseen effect. "I wasn't prepared for people coming up to me afterwards and crying all over me. Because you can't listen to everybody's story, you can't respond to everyone." Then, smiling, she adds, "But it's also fantastic. Because you think, well, I'm not sure how I did that, but it worked - they believed me."

'Hobson's Choice' runs from tonight to 9 August at the Young Vic, London SE1 (020-7928 6363), and then tours the UK