Shakespeare gets the Ramallah treatment

Stephen Tiller's play 'The Daughter' brings 'Measure for Measure' up to date by casting the heroine as a Palestinian suicide bomber. Claire Allfree reports
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Stephen Tiller has a knack for timing. He spent the latter part of 2002 researching a play about precision bombing during the 1999 Kosovan war. A few months later, America declared war on Iraq, and within weeks the newspapers were full of stories about cluster bombs killing civilians.

Tiller's play Warcrime, written under the pseudonym David Wallace, was waiting in the wings, and when it opened in St Andrew's crypt in central London in April 2003, it became one of the very first pieces of new writing that was seen to be commenting on the Iraqi invasion.

Fast forward a couple of years, to May 2005, and Tiller is in Ramallah, researching another new play, this time about suicide bombers. Within two months, four suicide bombers have hit London, and once again, the play he is writing has suddenly gone beyond its intended sphere of relevance.

That play, called The Daughter, is about a young girl who takes on a deadly mission but who is persuaded by her dad to let him go in her place. He in turn is then caught. The play no longer just asks questions about a type of warfare far away but about a conflict that has been brought to our front door.

Inevitably, the genesis of both projects had less to do with prescience and more to do with Tiller's fascination with different cultures and religions. "I used to work with a load of Serbian, Bosnian, and Macedonian actors, so when the bombings started in Sarajevo I was obviously following events through my friends in Belgrade," he says.

"When I went out there, I came across this true story about a woman killed by a cluster bomb in an anti-Milosevic town who may or may not have been involved in the war. I got interested in this idea of a woman as a voluntary participant in war, and through that, I came to write The Daughter - which is set in the occupied territories about a woman who openly embraces the idea of conflict."

The Daughter is the second in a projected trilogy of plays from Tiller's company The Wedding Collective, which he co-founded with the Asian designer Nadia Lakhani, all of which will challenge perceptions of women in conflict and defy the usual motif of women as carers and pacifists.

Woven into all this is Tiller's own mother, who committed suicide several years ago after the death of Tiller's father. "As a kid, I was always struck by the idea that, were I to never do anything meaningful, would I be capable of bumping off some tyrant to make something of my life? That was just a childish attempt to battle with ideas of heroism, of course, but I've always been interested in the idea of someone killing themselves for a purpose rather than for nothing, or out of a sense of being locked into depression. We tend to see women as the people who protest against war or who suffer the most, who are good. But it's more interesting to look at a woman who wasn't good, or who was troublingly heroic."

Initially, he used verbatim techniques to construct both plays, researching The Daughter through extensive interviews with people who lived under curfew and under threat of suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Hebron. Yet where Warcrime was based on a true story, The Daughter is not.

"I've fabricated a lot of my material because the play is in many respects about different fictions. It's about who you believe. And I've also interwoven elements of Shakespeare's Measure For Measure, partly because I'm also very interested in this idea of purity. At one point the daughter is offered a deal whereby she can sleep with an Israeli to help save her father, but she refuses. So that was another element: this young girl can accept the idea of killing herself and other people, but can't accept the idea of sleeping with someone."

In basing his play around a daughter, Tiller has gone straight to the nerve centre in Asian and Muslim families, where daughters tend to carry an awful lot of symbolic weight with regard to ideas of sexuality and purity, honour and family duty. And these days, many are either choosing to throw off the shackles of this symbolism by rejecting their faith completely, or are embracing it with open arms.

Last year Shabina Begun took her school to court for refusing to allow her to wear a jilbab (a long overgarment) in class. "It's interesting that girls have become the most militant symbol of this culture war," Tiller says. "We've just lived through 20 years in which no one believed in anything; now we are in this extraordinary battle in which suddenly people are fighting for what they believe, and women are at the forefront of the battle.

"It works on all levels. I went to Morocco a few years ago with a very clichéd notion of female Asian body language in mind. Far from being the sad, hunched, oppressed creatures of my imagination, I was struck by how flirty they were, how empowered."

Lakhani, meanwhile, who is a generation younger than Tiller, is an example of a girl who has gone the other way, and in doing so, has encountered her own problems. She has never practised the Muslim faith of her mother, and her refusal to conform to type has invited different forms of racism both from within the Asian community and without.

"I was brought up by a single parent in Romford, Essex, who encouraged me to go my own way, but other children wouldn't come anywhere near me because my parents were divorced and my mother was single," she says. "That sort of thing wasn't done.

"After 7/7 people at work questioned her about why a person would do this, and although she was as horrified as anyone by what had happened, she became very vulnerable about being open about her faith. The perception is, if you are Muslim, then you must be related to this ugliness, but that's not the case. And of course, there's the perception that if you are Asian, then you are also Muslim. I was stopped and searched after 7/7. But I'm not Muslim; I have nothing to do with my culture in that sense: I drink for example. Yet people don't see it."

In the end it's partly a problem of entrenched cultural and gender stereotypes. Tiller agrees. "I'm fascinated by these sorts of prejudices," he says. In this play I want to unsettle myself and the audience about what constitutes a woman, a Muslim, and a daughter."

'The Daughter' is at The White Space, Brick Lane, London E1 (020-7251 8213) 23 May to 11 June