|Sudha Bhuchar - photo by Robert Day|
It is based on the true story of a twelve year old Scottish/Pakistani girl who disappeared from her home on the Isle of Lewis.
When the story first exploded onto the front pages of British tabloid newspapers in 2006, it seemed like a classic tug-of-love, clash-of-cultures story – a young girl ‘kidnapped’ by her father and taken to Pakistan to undergo a forced marriage with an older man.
The true story was far more nuanced, as Sudha Buchar’s script, drawn from many hours of interviews, reveals.
At the Platform Theatre at Central St Martins in London, a tiny stage encompasses two sitting rooms, one in Pakistan and one on the Isle of Lewis. At the back of the stage, half obscured by a gauze curtain, are the newspaper headlines that sought to force them into one or another stereotypical box. More newspaper cuttings litter the floor.
The picture that emerges is complex and layered. By allowing us to see each family member as a true individual, by allowing their stories to unfold over time, we see how the free and easy mixing of communities in the 1980s was slowly warped by events happening in the wider world. How a damaged young woman’s need to belong drove her to create a version of herself as a perfect Muslim wife until, in her own words ‘Suzy was gone, well and truly gone.’ This is a pressure cooker created, not by the clash of cultures, but by these families and these individuals.
Bhuchar has resisted the temptation to fictionalise the story (apart from altering the names) and instead stays with the authentic voices of the three family members - father, mother and daughter – as they tell their story from different sides of the world. And those voices have extraordinary directness.
But this is not strictly ‘verbatim’ writing either. Bhuchar has shaped the script, interweaving the stories and letting the voices cut across each other, so that we hear two versions of the parents’ first meeting, two versions of family’s hajj to Mecca. At times the actors cross the invisible divide to take part in a remembered scene or speak words attributed to them by one another. At times, too, they break through a kind of ‘third wall,’ to address, not the audience in the theatre, but the original audience of Bhuchar and her tape recorder.
Afterwards, playwright and actors took part in a New Writing Platform discussion with the audience, looking the process of creating My Name Is... and the challenges of verbatim theatre This was first in a new series of events presented by the MA Dramatic Writing course run by University of the Arts London, to explore, discuss and share new ideas.
Bhuchar began by explaining how she was drawn to the story by an article in the Guardian, the first that attempted to reach beyond stereotypes and accusations, and how she approached the family and asked to interview them. She flew to Pakistan and spent several days with father and daughter. The daughter then persuaded the mother to see her, and she spent several more days on Lewis with her. The result was 120 pages of interview transcripts which took eight years to shape into this play.
“The technique came in layers,” Bhuchar explained. “I’d never worked like this in my life! To begin with I thought that I would fictionalise the story, but nothing I wrote had the power of the original words. In the end the promise I made was that, however I shaped it, I must not make up any words”
Asked about her interview technique, Bhuchar spoke of not having her own agenda, about having empathy, about being interested in simply ‘overhearing.’ One of the ways she got the mother to open up was to go back to the very beginning of the story, to when the two of them met, when they had been happy together. “Usually people don’t ask me that,” she was told.
Of the three actors, only Kiran Sonia Sawar who plays ‘Gaby/Ghazala’ wanted to listen to the interview tapes to catch the nuances of the original voices. Umar Ahmed, who plays ‘Farhan’, grew up in Pollokshields and actually knew the father by sight. Karen Bartke who is from Glasgow but from a different background to ‘Suzy’, didn’t want her performance to descend into mere imitation and found it easier to connect with the emotion through the scripts – something she did with incredible power.
Early this year, the cast had the chance to perform the play with mother and daughter (now back living in Scotland) in the audience – something that was terrifying but also profoundly gratifying. Seeing their parents’ early lives together played out, in their own words, was particularly moving for the daughter. She told the actors afterwards that, as the youngest child, she had almost no memory of her parents being happy together.
At the end of the discussion, one of the audience members commented that he had been waiting all through it for the author to come down on one ‘side’ or another. Yet that never happens. By allowing each of the characters their own authentic voice, she manages to preserve a balance, so that your heart reaches out to each of them in turn.
You can read the Guardian article the first inspired Bhuchar to write the play here.
And you can read my interview with Sudha Bhuchar about her time as Artistic Director of Tamasha here.