The Black Album @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Jonathan Bonnici; Glyn Pritchard; Alexander Anderou; Beruce Khan; Nitin Kundra; Tanya Franks; Sean Gallagher; Robert Mountford; Shereen Martineau

directed by
Jatinder Verma

Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album charts the attempt of Shahid Hasan, a student of Post-Colonial literature, to resist radicalisation in city divided by issues of race and religion.

With a deadly fatwa looming over Salman Rushdie, Shahid is forced to choose between his love of self-expression and the comradeship of his principled but dangerous friends.

Promising to set Kureishi’s 1995 novel in a new and nuanced context, this Tara Arts and NT co-production would seem to offer exciting dramatic and ironic opportunities.

Instead, Kureishi’s salesmanship leaves us wondering if this is merely money for old hat.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the climax of the work. Just in case the timeliness of the project was lost on us, the audience is treated to a short clumsy coda straining to underline this fact.

This cross-fade casually promotes a seamless transition between the struggles of two distinct decades. Of course we find thematic continuities when reading history, but events including the development of religious and other forms of extremism are irrevocably rooted in their time. People and ideas are reactive.

This is a lack of subtlety that threatens to undo much of what made his novel so admirable in the first place. We are reminded, if only in passing, of the author’s ability to scrutinise and expose intellectual reductionism. The 80s atmosphere, here quite passably reconstructed, permeates the stage. It prompts us to reflect on the very specific social conditions that culminated in this atmosphere; how, in a vicious circle, isolation fuels segregation, and how an overdetermined position might counter feelings of estrangement and loss.

The rucksacks, ticking unseen in the corner of a daydream, cannot belong to this play. They’re too easy. Kureishi didn’t see that one coming however hard he might pretend. I found myself thinking of all the Michael Jackson stands now ushered to the front of music stores. The King of Pop’s death may have generated a good deal of interest in his music, but however apt Gone too Soon may sound it was never presented as a mystical work of prophesy. Are we to swallow the idea that provenance has somehow left its mark on The Black Album?

That said, the performance itself seemed to resist the false assumption of complexity. The characters were thinly sketched with an uncritical dependence on stereotypes. This was occasionally played for laughs dutifully given but there was little evidence of a wider rhetorical purpose. There was insufficient depth to mount a serious argument and the cast seemed to struggle with the sheer capriciousness of their characters.

In its own small way, The Black Album adds to the debate surrounding this gigantic issue, but bereft of novelty it fails to take it forward. Perhaps both book and play are doomed to be read through blood-tinted spectacles. Future productions would do well to avoid courting the curse.

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