First Night: The Black Album, National Theatre, London

Kureishi's brilliant novel is better left unsaid

Michael Coveney
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:26

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 judgemental faculties absolutely nowhere. How can something so absolutely boring and tritely old-fashioned in presentational terms claim to be widening the NT's remit, or "bringing in new audiences"?

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 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 of about 1979 – brings in messy video back projections, an awful diluted 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 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's performance of her profound significance as an educationalist poised between serious intentions and serious hedonism. The Islamic cell offers no serious third alternative.

Kureishi never mentions Rushdie or The Satanic Verses by name, but the show flashes the novel as a sort of historic talisman of the ongoing struggle. This is a mistake, as the dramatic arguments, such as they are, steer clear of the specific issues raised and misunderstood in that novel. Jonathan Bonnici plays Shahid like a willing cipher, which demonstrates the gulf between a fictional and dramatic character: he's completely uninteresting, because we don't hear how he talks and thinks, which we do in the novel.

Kureishi started off in the theatre and wrote some fine plays. But this recycling of novels is not a good idea; 10 years ago the National presented his own version of Intimacy as a toe-curling social comedy; the pith of it was brilliantly done in a Patrice Chereau film soon afterwards. Let's hope someone's on hand to rescue The Black Album on celluloid before too long.

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