Fresh blood - Emerging playwright Emteaz Hussain tells us more about her latest drama
This March will see Coventry’s Belgrade open its doors to one of Britain’s hottest new writing talents with the premiere of Emteaz Hussain’s sizzling new play Blood from Fri 27 March – Sat 11 April.
Set in the heart of the Midlands’ Pakistani community, this sparky, fresh and heart-wrenchingly honest story tells of South Asian teenagers Caneze and Sully whose struggle to be together against the odds leaves them at the mercy of cultural forces outside their control.
The play is a co-production between the Belgrade Theatre and British-Asian theatre company Tamasha, whose past productions include the critically-acclaimed Snookered, My Name Is and the original version of Ayub Khan-Din’s smash-hit play East is East in 1996. This latest production will see Tamasha re-united with Emteaz following their production of her first play, Sweet Cider, at the Arcola Theatre in London in 2008.
With the heat rising in rehearsals ahead of the show’s opening in Coventry this month, we caught up with Em to find out more about the inspiration behind Blood, the importance of breathing fresh life into British theatre-making and Tamasha’s ongoing mission to place cultural diversity at the heart of UK theatre today.
What is Blood about?
In short, Blood is a love story. It’s the story of two South Asian teenagers, Caneze and Sully, who are struggling to be together. Like a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, Caneze and Sully’s story is about family ties and the risks people are willing to take for love – and the lengths to which others will go to keep them apart.
What were the main inspirations for writing the play?
After the 2011 riots, I felt frustrated over the blinkered portrayal of working class young people in Britain. It was important to me to write a play which captured the complexity of young people’s lives and the brave, sassy way they negotiate their world and all its complexities, whether that means dealing with racism, class conflict or the expectations of a particular culture or religion. I wanted to counter some of the negativity surrounding our misunderstood inner city young people, particularly, those from migrant backgrounds, to humanise their struggle and allow these two characters to tell their own story in their own way.
Blood is produced by Tamasha who specialize in commissioning work that places the voices of artists from culturally diverse backgrounds centre-stage. You have been working with Tamasha since you were on the Tamasha Developing Artist programme and they produced your previous play Sweet Cider in 2008. What is it about the company that you like?
What is particularly distinctive about working with Tamasha is how far-reaching they are. As a playwright and full-time mum based in Nottingham, it’s easy to feel detached from London and what sometimes seems like a rarefied theatre world. It’s through the kind of bespoke work that Tamasha produce that culturally diverse communities can have their voices heard in mainstream theatre culture. Over their 25 year history, Tamasha have helped launch the careers of artists like Parminder Nagra (Bend It Like Beckham), Jimi Mistry and Raza Jaffrey, all of whom have gone on to become household names. Tamasha have been with me every step of the way on my journey of bringing Blood to the stage. As a member of Tamasha Developing Artists (TDA) programme, I benefitted first-hand from the company’s mentoring and guidance. For someone like me coming from where I come from – a post-refuge survivor – their support has been absolutely priceless and I am deeply grateful to Tamasha for having stuck by me.
The play has a very lyrical and poetical style to it. Is this something that comes naturally to you? Or is it something you have to strive for?
On the whole it does come naturally, but as a performance poet moving into drama I strive to understand and master that particular discipline and mix them both. The playwright Simon Stephens says that playwrights “don’t write plays they wrought them” and I completely agree! I ‘wrestle’ with the craft as I believe most playwrights do. As a teenager, poetry was a way of articulating what I thought and felt. It was something that felt very accessible to me so it’s still very much a part of what I do. It’s a fusion really.
This production is touring to eleven venues around the UK. How important do you think touring theatre is?
It’s vital. Theatre belongs to the communities that pay their taxes to subsidise it so it is important that theatre has that reach and speaks ‘with’ the communities it serves. Touring work is an essential part of that movement. I love the work that the writer Stella Duffy is currently undertaking with Fun Palaces where art is seen as something that anyone can do, and belongs to everyone – it is about ownership. In the same way, initiatives like the Tamasha Developing Artists’ Programme and the newly launched ‘Tamasha Playwrights’ collective are helping to ensure theatre can be and is representative of Britain’s culturally diverse communities. As part of the Blood tour, Tamasha will be working with local schools across the UK to give young people from minority backgrounds the chance to see their work performed live on a professional stage this July. That’s very much at the heart of what Tamasha is all about – giving communities a sense of ownership over what is being produced and what stories are being told – stories that mean something to them.
At what point did you realise that writing was something you could do as a profession?
When someone paid me to do a gig many, many years ago. I was thrilled and, to use a contemporary reference, it felt like I had won the X Factor! Seriously, my little poetry gig being performed in a community centre in Camden! To be paid £50 seemed hugely glamorous to me coming from ‘up north’ and being so young and green at the time. That’s when it first struck me that writing could be a viable profession.
What do you hope people will take away from Blood?
I want audiences to empathise with Caneze and Sully’s situation, both of whom are faced with the reality of having to choose between their family and the person they have fallen head over heels for. I want people to think twice before being dismissive about inner-city young people and about the negative stories they sometimes read in the press. Caneze and Sully’s story is one of tenderness and compassion. What transpires is that the world in which they find themselves doesn’t always value love and compassion in the same way as they do. I want audiences to come away with an understanding of the pressures on young people today, particularly if you happen to be from a migrant background or if you happen to be of a particularly faith or close-knit cultural community. Having said all that, I believe the play has universal appeal too. At its heart, Blood is about two people who, to use Sully’s own words, ‘just want to be together’ – I think that’s something we can all relate to.
Blood premieres at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre from Fri 27 March – Sat 11 April before embarking on UK Tour. For a full list of touring venues, visit http://www.tamasha.org.uk/blood/ To book tickets for the Belgrade Theatre, please call the Box Office on 024 7684 6715 or visit www.belgrade.co.uk where tickets are cheaper.