As Freud is claimed to have remarked regarding psychological symbolism, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." There are a lot of cigars, so to speak, in Shan Khan's second play, and a lot of people will be eager to over-interpret them. Within minutes of the final curtain my own companion had fallen into the Behzti fallacy, like the Sikh protesters who forced the closure of that play (produced, like this one, by Birmingham Rep) last December, of interpreting unusual or unpleasant characteristics attributed to individual characters as being slurs on those characters' religion.
The play concerns a university's inter-faith prayer room, and arguments between Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups as they each argue to maximise the time allotted specifically to them and refuse to compromise or share. Uneasy semi-acknowledgement escalates into violence. Religion is plainly at the core of the narrative, but the real subject is how various issues, both divine and personal, can intertwine with one another to bring out the worst in us. We are individuals first, legates for our particular god only second. The intolerance divides fairly equally between the three faiths; Jews Reuben and Rilla share more of their individual stories, but are also quicker to fly off the handle, and the strongest criticism of any religion is by Reuben himself of some of Judaism's traditions. Conversely, it's Christianity which is given the least material to mitigate the extremism of some of its adherents here: study group leader Matthew is not only the worst kind of evangelical authoritarian, but is implied to be so vain that the only texts he preaches on are those of his namesake apostle.
Khan has a marvellous ear for the speech of contemporary youth: these youngsters may be of differing faiths but they all (apart from Matthew) speak the same language. Prayer Room has all the verbal vibrancy of his first play Office, seen in the Edinburgh Festival in 2001, together with an appealing weight of content. That, however, is still only fitfully plotted through: why, since the room is only available for three and half days a week, does the college principal not simply solve the dilemma by opening it more often? And the fraught confrontation at the end of 75 minutes is a terrific first-act climax, but unfortunately there is no second act, and the play simply stops there.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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