Arinzé Kene on writing about the London riots, starring in Arthur Miller and shaking up the West End

Published in The Independent January 25, 2019

You might have seen Arinzé Kene around last year. As an actor, he began 2018 on stage in the West End transfer of Girl from the North Country, Conor McPherson’s play featuring the songs of Bob Dylan, before cropping up on the small screen in the BBC’s thriller Informer, and in Netflix’s musical Been So Long opposite Michaela Coel.

Continue reading “Arinzé Kene on writing about the London riots, starring in Arthur Miller and shaking up the West End”

Review: When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, National Theatre

Published in The Independent January 24, 2019

Well, here’s a chance to see a Hollywood star up close and extremely personal. Cate Blanchett stars in a new Martin Crimp play, which stages an elaborate S&M sex game in a garage. Normally, to start a review of a celebrity performance by commenting on how they stride around sexily in suspenders would seem tacky, but that literally is the, ahem, thrust of the show. Game of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane is similarly trussed up, if that helps. 

Continue reading “Review: When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, National Theatre”

Review: Ear for Eye, Royal Court

A cast of 15 black actors fills the stage. That this itself is worth remarking on is just the tip of why Debbie Tucker Green’s incendiary play about racial injustice feels so important.

Part one comprises several short scenes, spiked with pointed repetitions, exploring attitudes towards prejudice, protest and police brutality across generations in the US and Britain. Which is better, steady progress or furious change?

Some are written in stylishly elliptical dialogue, but best are the rhythmical, lyrical speeches: this is beautiful writing about horrific things, from being tear-gassed to being strip-searched.

Part two is a long, circling debate between an excruciatingly condescending white academic and a young black woman that slowly exposes the contortions made so that white-supremacist killers aren’t deemed terrorists. 

Part three shows film of white people chillingly reading aloud segregation laws and British slave codes.

Two hours without an interval, it’s not an easy watch. Nor should it be. But for all that it may be discomforting, Green’s writing is also exhilarating, her direction penetrating, and the performances poised yet potent. 

This is a riveting piece of theatre that demands you don’t look away.

Madani Younis interview: ‘I made a decision to celebrate those who are making the difference we want to see’

At the weekend, Madani Younis stepped down as artistic director of the Bush Theatre, a role he’s been in since 2012.

A lot has changed in those six years: the theatre moved from being above a pub to a new venue with two stages in Shepherd’s Bush in 2017, a swish redevelopment costing £4.3 million, while Younis has overseen box office success and West End transfers. Now he’s about to make his own move, becoming creative director at the Southbank Centre, the biggest arts centre in Britain, in January.

But beyond this shiny gloss of success, the real achievement has been changing what goes on inside the Bush: the stories that get told, and the stories the theatre tells about itself. 

When Younis first started, he would sit in his own auditorium and be “the only person that looks like me”. That is no longer the case. The theatre’s artists, and its audiences, look a lot more like the London we actually live in. 

His programming has been trailblazing in developing work by artists of colour — recently, Arinzé Kene’s smash hit Misty, which earned Kene a place on the shortlist for an Evening Standard Theatre Award this year, and Doctor Who writer Vinay Patel’s epic love story An Adventure. 

He has also launched schemes such as Up Next, Project 2036, and Passing the Baton, which offer support to BAME aspiring producers, directors and writers. The aim is to create structural change at all levels. 

“That’s not about being ‘right on’, that’s about going: ‘When you’re in a theatre, let it feel like you’re in London,’” says Younis, who was raised here by a Trinidadian mother and Pakistani father, and who lives in Watford. “We programme and we nurture and we celebrate the version of London that I love.” 

Not that it’s always been smooth sailing: “It was definitely hard at the beginning to find the artists and defend my choices. At the beginning, people said ‘That s*** is too radical’,” he says, adding that people questioned whether it was financially viable to programme whole seasons by artists of colour. 

Which people, I ask — the theatre’s board? The press? “All of the above. I heard it from everyone.” Even writers he wanted to commission were sometimes surprised, he says, recalling a woman of colour telling him she didn’t think the Bush was a venue that would want her. 

Younis is a forthright presence, and while his arguments are often delivered with the smooth, unassailable control of a politician, you can feel that they’re underpinned by an uncompromising conviction that greater diversity genuinely improves the arts for everyone. Oh, and it also shifts tickets. 

“One might sound very virtuous trying to win the moral argument — and I need the liberal guilt of the arts about as much as I need crack,” he laughs. “The truth is that we needed to win the economic argument.”

Over the past six years, diversity has also become a key topic across the industry. Yet sometimes it still feels more like a buzzword than a commitment, accompanying hand-wringing but not action. Are we seeing real change, or just lip service? 

“A lot of people are talking about this, and we’re living it and we’re living it super-proudly,” says Younis. “We are seeing change — change that is well overdue in our sector — [but] I think there is a long way to go. Look, I could sit here and be super negative about the corporatisation of diversity. The truth is that I’ve spent too many years expending my energy critiquing those who are very privileged. 

“I made a decision a few years ago to go: ‘Let me celebrate those who are actually making the difference that we want to see.’”

And when it comes to celebrations, none has been more joyful — or irresistibly symbolic — than the West End closing party for Misty, Kene’s blazing show probing the notion of “a black play”, just over a week ago. It turns out Kene was Younis’s very first commission. 

“That play bookmarks my tenure, and what a beautiful way to bookmark it,” he says. “That’s really what I am about, what this building is about: being able to support young talent at a time when they’re dreaming very big.”

It’s also about supporting artists when they’re losing faith in themselves: Kene, Younis reveals, actually tried to give the commission back. “We invested a lot of money into Misty. Arinzé was like ‘This is not happening Madani’, and my response was ‘Look dude, we’re going to give you some more money’. He continued to write. He never gave up, and we never gave up.”

The Bush recently announced its next artistic director: another young talent, Lynette Linton, a 28-year-old director without many high-profile productions on her CV. Might she be seen as a bold, risky choice? 

“Nahhhh!” laughs Younis. “She’s only a few years younger than I was when I first started. By the grace of God we’re in a financially good position — Lynette can come in and have fun. Most buildings are experiencing what it’s like to have someone of colour at its helm for the first time; the Bush is on the second chapter.”

In 2012, Younis became the first artisic director of colour at any major London theatre. Today, he gives shout-outs to Nadia Fall at Theatre Royal Stratford East, Kwame Kwei-Armah at the Young Vic, Indhu Rubasingham at the Kiln (formerly the Tricycle), and Justin Audibert at the Unicorn. It is important, he says, to “have power looking different”.

Arts sector roles don’t get much more powerful than heading up the Southbank Centre. Younis will oversee literature, dance, performance and free programmes, in a restructured role alongside director of music, Gillian Moore, and director of the Hayward Gallery, Ralph Rugoff. 

“When my mother came over here as a nurse, she knew of the Southbank Centre because a steel pan band from Trinidad were involved in the opening. So in my family it’s held this emotional place,” he says. “That building was created as a symbol of hope, post-war — and we’ve never needed it more than we need it today.” 

Jane Austen’s unfinished novel comes to the stage

Published in The New York Times on November 6, 2018

What happens to a novel’s characters when their author abandons them? I spoke to British playwright Laura Wade about bringing “The Watsons,” an unfinished novel by Jane Austen, to the stage, in a piece for the New York Times. Continue reading “Jane Austen’s unfinished novel comes to the stage”

Jessica Barden on Pinter and the return of ‘The End of the F***ing World’

Published in The i on November 6, 2018

The day I meet Jessica Barden, the first image at the top of her Instagram is a black and white photograph of Harold Pinter captioned “Bae. Harold.” Beneath that, young fans tell her how much they love her Netflix series The End of The F***ing World (TEOTFW). Continue reading “Jessica Barden on Pinter and the return of ‘The End of the F***ing World’”

Review: Honour, Park Theatre

Published in Mail on sunday on November 3, 2018

A middle-aged, middle-class couple – he a towering figure in journalism, she a writer who’s not published for decades – appear to have a comfortable, rock-solid marriage. Then along comes a bright, beautiful, ambitious writer half his age, to interview him for a book. Continue reading “Review: Honour, Park Theatre”

How LSD influenced Western culture

Published in BBC Culture on October 17, 2018

When you think of LSD, a very specific aesthetic probably leaps to mind: the psychedelic pink-and-orange swirls of the 60s; naked people with flowers in their hair; the shimmer of a sitar. After its psychedelic properties were accidentally discovered in the lab by Albert Hofmann in 1943, the drug was banned in the UK in 1966. LSD is still most strongly associated with hippies who embraced its mind-expanding properties. Continue reading “How LSD influenced Western culture”

Emma Rice on bouncing back with Wise Children: ‘This show has been my saviour’

Published in The i on October 15, 2018

Emma Rice is scrolling through her emails as the cast of her new show, Wise Children, prepare to rehearse a scene. She laughs: somehow she’s wound up on a recruitment email service, suggesting she apply for a job in a call centre. Continue reading “Emma Rice on bouncing back with Wise Children: ‘This show has been my saviour’”