Shan Khan: Agent provocateur

'Behzti' at Birmingham Rep caused an uproar last year. 'Prayer Room', a new play by Shan Khan, may prove just as explosive
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The Independent Culture

The report in The Muslim News got Khan thinking. By chance he also had a commission for a new play from the Edinburgh International Festival. This year Prayer Room, in a co-production with Birmingham Rep, premieres at the International Festival, directed by the director of Elmina's Kitchen, Angus Jackson. Set in an unnamed university, it centres on three religious groups, Christians, Jews and Muslims who use the same room for worship and divide the timetable between them. Except in Khan's play, its the Jewish group who argue they have been victimised. They haven't been given any time at all to pray alone, and demand that they should be given the Muslim slot on a Friday afternoon.

Khan had been intrigued by the idea of prayer rooms as a basis for a play before, but it took the events at UCL to persuade him that it held water. "I had previously thought if I tackled the idea of people fighting over the right to pray as a realistic subject, people would dismiss it as something that would never happen in a liberal country," he says. "But it did happen, and it does happen."

Khan's first play, The Office – a grubby comedy about drug dealers operating out of a phone box in King's Cross, which won a Verity Bargate Award in 2001 – also premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, but he has upped the stakes with the satirical tone of Prayer Room. The play can partly be seen as an inverted analogy for events in the Middle East – in the course of promoting their cause, everyone is guilty of religious intolerance and, to a degree, moral hypocrisy. Essentially, though, Khan wanted the play to do two crucial things. By placing three different cultures side by side in a hot-house environment, he wanted to present a vivid portrait of multicultural Britain living not in discrete ethnic ghettos but cheek by jowl. "TV execs [Khan is also a Bafta nominated scriptwriter] ask me to write a multicultural play; what they actually want is a drama about a black barbershop in Hackney," says Khan, who was born in Scotland to Asian parents and lives in London. "That's not multicultural: that's about one culture living inside another country. All that does is feed the goldfish-bowl mentality. Look on the Tube, look at where you live: the real drama lies in how different cultures interact."

Furthermore, in examining the problems precisely created by this proximity, Khan identifies the extent to which the new battlefield in modern Britain is not race, but religion. "I'm not saying plays about racism aren't artistically valid; it's just that I'm just not interested," says Khan, who is a practising Muslim. "People can call me Paki bastard all they like: it won't hurt me. These days, it's people's beliefs, not skin colour, that are the targets." Khan has spoken before about the way he feels Muslims are treated in Britain – "Muslims in this country are being downgraded" – and in the character of Fiz, the Muslim scholar, who initially appears the most trenchant and fundamentalist of the characters, Khan deliberately plays to audiences' preconceptions of fiercely religious young Muslim boys. He believes it's time theatre acknowledged that societies riven by religious conflict are no longer the preserve of the Middle East or Northern Ireland. "Second- and third-generation Muslims in this country are increasingly uncertain about their identity. When that happens to people, they become more strident about asserting their faith. In a post-9/11 climate, what you believe in is where the fight occurs. It's happened to me: I was walking down Oxford Street not long after 9/11, having been to the mosque, and a car full of people yelled out, 'Muslim bastards,' and threw carrot cake at me. Just as well it was England: in Glasgow it would have been a brick."

This brings with it its own set of problems. Religious faith breeds religious intolerance, and increasingly the challenge facing the theatre is how to reflect these conflicts on the stage without making them worse on the streets. Stuart Rogers, the executive producer of Birmingham Rep, is aware of this only too well. Birmingham Rep hit the headlines last December when it pulled Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play Behzti, which depicted rape and murder in a Sikh temple, after violent clashes between Sikh protesters and the police. The Government sided with the Rep's decision, but artists and the press criticised it as an attack on free speech.

Rogers says Birmingham Rep has learnt from the experience. In April, it staged two plays, Bells and Chaos, by two British Pakistani writers, both of which dealt with controversial issues of faith and morality. Yasmin Whittaker Khan's Bells, about the barely acknowledged underworld of Muslim brothels, known as murjas, was reportedly denounced by the chairman of Birmingham's Central Mosque for tarring all Muslims with the same brush before it had even opened. The Rep points out, however, that there was no trouble during the run and both plays sold out.

"The lesson we learnt from Behzti is not that theatres should stop doing this sort of work but that they should do more of it," Rogers says. "The more we talk about these sort of issues in the theatre, the more normal it becomes and the less likely it is that people will be upset by it."

For Khan, the role of the artist has always been to go to places where society fears to tread. He is also working on the libretto for Gaddafi – The Opera in collaboration with the polemical pop band Asian Dub Foundation and English National Opera. "Sitting on the fence gets us nowhere, he says. "There's enough politically correct rope around to hang us all. Art should never seek approval. Theatre should be fast-moving and it should say the things that people don't have the balls to say anywhere else."

'Prayer Room', Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-473 2000) 22 to 28 August