Writer: Iman Qureshi
Director: Hannah Hauer-King
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
Death. Each faith, nation and individual have their own thoughts, prayers and customs surrounding the event. The Funeral Director, winner of Papatango’s 10th annual new writing prize tackles the Islamic faith’s relationship with same-sex relationships and the concealed secrets associated with it.
Being a funeral director is far from the most publicly glamorous job – it is, however, an important one. Especially for the Muslim community, with a variety of rituals and customs unfamiliar to some readers. Ayesha has a life other would envy – a loving husband, their own business and the prospect of a healthy future. There are cracks though, cracks pried open by a snap judgement to refuse a gay man’s burial based on communal values. With this Ayesha’s secured secrets begin to slink through.
Staged in traverse, the entire production has a sense of balance, or rather imbalanced. Amy Jane Cook’s set works in tandem with some astounding minimalist, yet effective lighting by Jack Weir to represent this duality: one side, clinical and cold – lit by fluorescence for the deceased, the other, more comforting and warmer. This realm of the living with its gold-trimmed tissues and custard creams is where the real pain is delivered – the coldness of the preparation room, space for truth.
This imbalance is rife throughout the production, nowhere more so than Ayesha who finds herself fear-struck by children, to deliver something knowing full well, it will pass. Aryana Ramkhalawon is at her best when she is unleashed, a commentary of her usual contained lifestyle. When presented with her own challenges to her, and her mothers, long-held beliefs they are touched upon, but more often kept to explosive moments in front of a mirror.
Faith, sexuality and death are nothing short of complicated to discuss openly without stirring offence or making errors. Mix two together to increase the likelihood of issue. Concoct all three into the production for a piece which could very easily crash. Qureshi avoids this, handling the connections Islamic culture has with decorum.
Whilst handled well in terms of cultural realism, they’re overly simplified. Edward Stone and Francesca Zoutewelle do their damn best with simplistic characters who exist to further the acceptance of LGBTQI+ rights and no more. They are by no means wrong in their assertion, especially with same-sex relations still considered haram in Islamic culture. A character must be more than the sum of their beliefs, there must be an actual being for us to identify with.
Primary issues lie with show don’t tell. In a valiant bid to educate, perhaps even comfort the audience to Islamic traditions many of the characters spout exposition. Janey’s revelation of her sexuality isn’t a surprise, nor does she seem to be saying it for her own identity – it’s proclaimed for the audience. Qureshi’s writing is meticulous, intelligent and accessible for all – perhaps edging on too accessible.
What the performers do, besides punching emotional boundaries, is ensure nothing feels preachy or position anyone as an antagonist. With such deeply devoted beliefs, some of which stand squarely against what (hopefully) most of the audience support. Even Assad Zaman as Zeyd, a man who himself struggles both with a public image in the community, whilst referring to gay men as ‘kuffars’ (loosely translated as infidel) is more a pathetic character than a villain.
There’s a stellar production here. It has the writing, the concept and ideology behind it to treat subjects surrounding death, same-sex relations and religion well. It plays a little too safe at times, inserting humour which feels stretched at kindest. With some bigger risks taken The Funeral Director could be an astounding piece of theatre.
Runs until 9 March 2019 | Image: Mihaela Bodlovic