Interview: Nirjay Mahindru and Iqbal Khan

Indian girl Loretta arrives in Victorian England to look after two children. She wants to earn enough money to pay for a ticket home, but fate intervenes. A century later, Loretta’s great-great-grandson Kalil leaves his East African home to start a new life in the UK. But like his ancestor, he discovers that our destiny isn’t always in our hands – and that the past is a dangerous place.

Golgotha is the latest play by writer and producer Nirjay Mahindru, who is artistic director of new-writing theatre company Conspirators’ Kitchen. Mahindru is an associate of the Factory Theatre and a recipient of the Stage One New Producers Award. His past work includes Hot Zone, which was Time Out’s Critics’ Choice when it premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2005.

Golgotha opens at London’s Tristan Bates Theatre on 14 November and stars Anjana Vasan as Loretta and Raj Ghatak as Kalil. It is directed by Iqbal Khan, whose most recent credits include the Royal Shakespeare’s Asian production of A Much Ado About Nothing. He also directed the critically acclaimed Snookered at the Bush Theatre last year.

A week before Golgotha’s opening night, I spoke with Mahindru and Khan about reclaiming the past on stage, the role of theatre in changing cultural perceptions and the importance of being allowed to fail.

‘Golgotha’ is Aramaic for the site of Christ’s crucifixion. Is this significant?

Nirjay Mahindru: I chose the title ‘Golgotha’ partly because I liked the sound of it, but also because it’s referred to as the ‘Place of the Skulls’, which is what the River Thames has been called. One of the heartbeats of the story, in the first half, is the Thames. In the play, it’s described as ‘that which holds all our secrets and our abominations.’

What inspired the play?

NM: It was very simple. When I started writing it quite a few years ago, and unfortunately even now, there were not that many interesting or leading roles for British Asian performers. So I thought, instead of moaning about it, why not create them myself?

What attracted you to the project, Iqbal?

Iqbal Khan: What excited me most about the play is that excavates enormous issues to do with cycles of persecution – how there have been generations of others who have suffered. If you like, the place of skulls is where their ghosts, their stories, have been silenced. Golgotha is an opportunity to give voice to those in the present generation and those of the Victorian generation. What also excited me was the form of the play, which is not naturalistic. It shifts perspective constantly and is very ambitious. It provides tremendous opportunities for a director.

Is the time shift crucial to the substance of the play?

IK: Yes, particularly for a play that’s being performed on the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda and in the year of the Royal Jubilee. If what you’re dramatising is persecution and crime that has happened through the ages, the shift between Queen Victoria’s age and the present day is very useful. The second story is to do with an Asian from the African continent who was expelled from Nigeria, so the play is tapping into all of these different issues and cycles.

NM: I hold the position that history is usually written by the winners. What I wanted in some ways to do was to reclaim some of that history and bring the shadows of the past to life. That’s certainly how I see the first half of the play and, to a certain extent, the second half. That notion of history being determined by the winners is always something that fascinates me because it’s open to being challenged.

Such as challenging perceptions of the Victorian era?

NM: I think the cultural position is that certainly the British Asian community (but other minorities as well) basically didn’t exist before the 1960s; when, actually, the British Asian community has been in England practically since the creation of the East India Company in 1600. Too many people don’t realise that. There’s also a tendency in this country to hold the view that ‘they’, whoever ‘they’ are, are coming over here, taking jobs and doing XYZ. But there was a community in Victoria England, particularly of Asian sailors, who were desperate to leave, to get back home. That goes against a lot of the images and stereotypes that we tend to get fed by newspapers and other media. That was something I really wanted to highlight – that a long time ago people weren’t particularly enamoured of imperial England.

Is theatre well-suited to that kind of task?

NM: Yes, although, personally, I’m not a big fan of verbatim theatre. I want the drama of the shadows, the drama of voices that we wouldn’t ordinarily hear. Now, some of it could be based on actual truths, but when it says theatre on the door, I expect a tapestry to be woven. But that’s just my take on it.

IK: Theatre is uniquely well equipped to do ideas, to do arguments. And it’s still, I think, the most poetic of the different media. We can cross time and bring ideas and characters into collision in ways that we wouldn’t ordinarily see in TV drama, which is dominated by naturalism. Theatre provides a great opportunity to do something broader and more profound.

You have both written or been involved with work that has challenged assumptions. Is that the first thing you look for when taking on a project?

IK: Yes. From my perspective as a director, but also as a theatre-goer, the ideal experience is one where you in some way change something in an audience’s thinking when they leave. You won’t change the world overnight. The most significant thing is just to alter perspectives a little, if you can – to challenge any complacent notions people might have come into the theatre with is absolutely central to everything I do.

NM: I echo what Iqbal just said. Also, fundamentally, I want to be able to explore the things that interest me. One of the problems of being – for want of a better phrase – a British Asian writer is that there does seem to be an expectation that what you write about will be all things British Asian. OK, Golgotha does explore themes that deal directly with the British Asian experience. But there are many themes and subjects that interest me that have absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the British Asian experience. I hope we are in a cultural place where writers like me can write such plays without theatres or commissioners turning round and asking, ‘Where’s the Asian angle?’

Is that still a pressure?

NM: Sub-consciously or otherwise, you are sometimes expected to be a spokesperson – because whether we like it or not, theatre is still perceived as the exclusive domain of a particular group of people within society. It’s still very difficult to convince certain communities that theatre belongs to them just as much as it belongs to anybody else. Peter Cheeseman, a fantastic theatre director from Stoke-on-Trent who totally influenced me, once said to me: ‘If a member of the public walks into the theatre and feels uncomfortable, even before they’ve bought a ticket, the theatre has already failed that person.’ All of us who work in theatre have an obligation to ensure that everybody feels that it belongs to them. And we still haven’t moved to a situation where people do feel that.

Do you see any cause for optimism in that regard?

IK: I think the argument’s been won, intellectually. Producers and the guys that run the theatres have been persuaded by the argument for inclusivity. It’s more about how they deliver, and that’s the difficult bit. It often means getting writers like Nirjay in to talk, initially, to a very specific group and then, when they have some status, giving them a broader remit. It takes a while to demonstrate to people who have convinced themselves that the theatre isn’t for them, that it’s exclusive of them, that this isn’t the case anymore. But I have enormous cause for optimism. It wasn’t dictated to me that I needed to do something Asian with A Much Ado About Nothing, it was something I chose to do. Now, there are 21 actors who have had the RSC experience and might potentially be asked to come back there in a different context. And all now have the confidence of having played important roles on that stage.

How has it been working with the Tristan Bates?

NM: Historically they’ve always been supportive, both of me as a writer and of Conspirators’ Kitchen as a company. Golgothamarks the first time that we’re doing a fully-fledged show at the theatre. They’ve previously supported development weeks for various ideas and Conspirator’s Kitchen was part of their original Ignition project, for which I’m extremely grateful. One of the things that always concerned me about developing a new company was having to bed-hop from venue to venue whenever you did a new show. I’ve always been interested in developing a sustained relationship with a venue that not only works for us as a new theatre company, but also for them and their audience development as well.

Is Golgotha part of a longer term project to ensure Conspirators’ Kitchen’s survival?

NM: For me, it’s absolutely crucial that Conspirators’ Kitchen exists as a theatre company because it definitely has a unique voice. And it is partly predicated on Golgotha having a successful run. But I think it’s a shame that we live in a time and a place where a new theatre company isn’t allowed to fail. You aren’t allowed to explore something, to make a mistake, without it being seen as a disaster. I’m long enough in the tooth to remember when new theatre companies would perform plays that would go down a hoot or wouldn’t work at all. But the expression and exploration of ideas was in some ways more important than number-crunching and counting the box office.

Is not being allowed to fail a condition of our current economy?

IK: It seems to me that the current economic climate is just intensifying a movement that’s already happening. A couple of years ago, the Arts Council commissioned a report that talked about excellence in theatre in a very nuanced way, but I’m not sure whether theatre companies or funding bodies, have listened to and understood what that report talked about. Excellence and inclusion should not be mutually exclusive. There is a kind of desperation to get numbers of different people in very quickly, and to define a formula for doing so. The creative industry cannot work in that way. It needs to be responsive to changes in climate and to changes in artists’ imperatives. The whole point of subsidy should be to enable us to discover that which is hidden. But, too often, new voices, marginal voices when they begin, are not given the space to grow and become more confident.

In light of what you have said, why should audiences come to Golgotha?

NM: Because they will experience something very different, and surprising. Both acts have very interesting twists and turns to them. They will also be seeing two fantastic performances from Anjana Vasan and Raj Ghatak. The play is a two-hander and, having watched them in rehearsals, I’m excited about what they’re going to produce. And we are so lucky to have Iqbal direct this play, that’s a real coup for Conspirators’ Kitchen.

IK: Nirjay will never say it, but I think his voice as a writer is a very bold one. It breaks any kind of stereotypes you can think of with respect to Asian new writing. And the stories the play tells are not ones most people will be familiar with. And they’re told in a very theatrical, entertaining and surprising way. I want people to come to be educated and entertained. My ambition is to adjust the assumptions that people may have of these vanished generations.

NM: What we would like is for Golgotha to have a life after this particular four-week run. In an ideal scenario, it would be fantastic if other theatres and producers would come to see the show, possibly with a view to staging it next year.

Golgotha is at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 14 November to 8 December. For more information, and to book tickets:

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