If Cosh Omar's first play had been staged somewhere like the Bush, its craft and intelligence would be appreciated and admired, but the character of the venue would have kept responses at a slight remove. At Stratford East, however, even though it's a bigger theatre complete with proscenium arch, audiences have been getting down and dirty with plays since the days of Joan Littlewood. It's salutary to experience such a direct connection with this story of Greek and Turkish Cypriots and their British-born offspring in north London.
Casting the author as protagonist Erol, a Turkish Cypriot café-owner's son, could also have been a risk. In the event, my early misgivings largely dissipated. Omar acts with an unforced small-screen naturalism that may not always fill the space but, if you're sitting close enough, conveys a wealth of detail.
As playwright, he not only inhabits his subject, but makes it live for us too. The plot interweaves numerous strands: tensions between the Turks and Greeks, with their common Cypriot heritage and alliances against Anglo-Saxon racists but otherwise ambivalent friendships; get-rich property development scams in the Turkish north; love across the Green Line (very West Side Story, although Erol hasn't just met a girl called Maria); and that other love which dare not speak its name, but which almost everyone seems to know about. This last matter is beautifully nuanced: I spent much of the penultimate, climactic scene luxuriating in the unshowy but eloquent "response" acting of the non-speaking players.
These are all various takes upon the central issue of identity. But the main angle is the most pressing: ethnic-Turkish secularism versus Islamic fundamentalism. In the Islamic worldview, Atatürk is the arch-traitor: the destroyer of the Caliphate, the unified Islamic state. In this view, the ideological opponent of Islam is not Christianity (as for the Greeks) but capitalism; conversely, the older, less strictly observant Muslim Turks bridle against the growing Islamist presence. Even Erol's seemingly casual choice of a Coke instead of a beer from the café's fridge becomes charged with significance.
The ideology is hammered a little, with formal speeches straight to the audience, but for the most part this is a revelation and a delight. It is the first production as artistic director here by Kerry Michael (who is of Greek Cypriot heritage himself). His avowed intent is to build on predecessor Philip Hedley's achievements in advancing black and Asian theatre in Britain, and to diversify that to include other ethnic voices. He's off to an exhilarating start.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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