Playwright Vinay Patel speaks to Theatrefullstop about his production, True Brits, now playing at The Vaults Festival!
Initially performed at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, True Brits has added to the pertinent debate of what it means to be British in the 21st century. Written by the talented Vinay Patel, who will shortly be writing a short film for BBC iPlayer and working on a pilot on the prestigious C4 screenwriting programme, True Brits will make its return to the theatre scene at this year’s VAULT Festival. With VAULT Festival’s theme of ‘inequality in politics’ being the driving force for this year, True Brits is a piece of theatre that could not be anymore timely or on the mark! Ahead of this year’s festival, Theatrefullstop were able to talk to Vinay about his motivations for writing the play, what he’d like to achieve with his play and why London is so welcoming!
Your play is set in two very different moments in London – the paranoia and chaos of 7/7 and the excitement and joy of the 2012 Olympics. London is the home of many people that travel from all over the world – do you think we can say it is a welcoming home?
I think so. Londoners are generally a curious bunch and will more often than not greet foreigners with questions rather than suspicion. The “head bowed, eyes down” stereotype falls away pretty quickly I find. People might *look* like they don’t want to talk but it’s rare that I’ve been rebuffed by a stranger. Most are just looking for you to make the first move.
Did this play and the challenges faced by the character reflected in any way represent how you feel or felt in Britain?
Absolutely. However, as I wrote it, the character travelled away from me in many aspects which allowed me to treat those challenges and emotions with appropriate skepticism and see what came out. At the same time, I realised that reasoning the play to death wasn’t worth it and I knew it was going to primarily be a narrative of feeling. I wanted to ‘bottle’ the experience of two separate times and allow the juxtaposition and the structure to do a lot of the intellectual work.
We see a difference in Rahul after the 7/7 events. How do you think these altered the daily existence of Indian/Pakistani families living in the UK in the short and long term?
Short-term, I think it was basically a “circling the wagons” time for anyone with brown skin. My own family was utterly petrified that I was going to get beaten up in a retaliation attack. I know some that were, including a Sikh – his turban being enough of a signifier of difference. I would say worse than the threat of violence though was how it affected your ability to live a ‘normal’, day-to-day life. I got stopped and searched a fair bit, to the extent that I got very nervous around train stations which probably didn’t help. It was the ‘politer’ stuff that really got to you. The way someone might move seats if you got on a train, the way an old lady would look at you with utter fear, having well-to-do intelligent people tell you “I think all Asians and Arabs should be searched at airports.” And worst of all was sort of understanding it and how internalising that played on you. That, to me, was far more problematic than the possibility of getting my head kicked in. Long-term, I think there’s a greater nuance between how Indians and Pakistanis are treated, especially if along Hindu & Sikh/Muslim lines. Even groups like the EDL know this – they actively approached Hindus and Sikhs to tell them that they have no problem with them – only Muslims. Though I can see how some may have found comfort in that, I find it pretty disgraceful that anyone leapt at that as any sort of comfort. It’s all a bit “First they came for the socialists…” for my liking.
Rahul was a blissfully ignorant teen who underwent a change as he learned about the world. How was it to write his progress as a character?
Rahul was a lot of fun to write at first. As he became his own man and not just an offshoot of my thoughts, it became quite painful to write. I didn’t want him to go through what he did nor end up responding as he does (trying not to spoiler!)
What was your motivation for writing this play?
It started as a way to get to the bottom of two strongly contrasting feelings towards this country I’d had in my life. The more I got into it, the more I wanted to find an entertaining way to discuss what I saw as the knottier questions of the day, through a lens that reflected my own struggles.
What does it mean to be British these days?
For me, it means being here, being engaged with those around you and living with the best of intentions. I don’t really think active citizenship can be much more than that without tipping into uncomfortable places. More broadly, research tells you that we’re a remarkably tolerant, mostly socially liberal society that is nervous, a little scared about the future and more often than not misinformed but with what I see as its heart in the right place.
Is opening up audiences’ perspectives one of your objectives as a writer? Is that something we can expect from all of your work – a willingness to make a change in society?
I’d say that whilst it’s not my focus, I’d like to open up perspectives if I can – it won’t always be possible with everything I write and it of course depends on who your audience is but it is undeniably something that attracts me to a topic. True Brits definitely began as a frustrated “I want people to understand these feelings!” play. In terms of society and what I do, I always try to tack towards the hopeful. My belief is that in these often miserable times, if our artists can’t give us the drive to do better, who else do we look to? People know the world is awful, personally I don’t feel like they need to pay me to tell them that.
How would you define the ultimate message of this play, what do you believe audiences will take from it?
I wouldn’t want to force a reaction, and the ending is designed so as to be open to your own interpretations but for myself I would say that integration and the identity issues surrounding can be a colossal struggle but it is ultimately a noble one worth sticking out, especially in Britain where despite everything we actually handle it relatively well. The world’s going to become more fused, not less so. The more confident we and those who come after us are at dealing and melding with other people, the better.
Your play is being performed at the VAULT Festival after being shown at last year’s Edinburgh festival. As a writer, how do you know when your play is finished? Have you ever felt you wanted to add or change anything after you’ve seen it performed?
When you’re just fiddling with stuff and you think you’ve mostly nailed what it is you set out to do, it’s done. If some big unspecific feeling of dread still prevails, stick it in a drawer for another couple of weeks. With True Brits I knew it was done when I noticed the difference in how people reading the latest draft received it. There are a couple of things I might change from the Edinburgh run, but I am fundamentally happy with it. That said, post-Edinburgh, I’m absolutely convinced the best way to make sure a play is up to scratch is to write it, put it on 20 odd times, watch every single performance and then re-write it…
What is your next project?
I’m just finishing up a short for BBC iPlayer that’ll start shooting next week and I’m on this year’s C4 Screenwriting Programme so will be developing a pilot through them. My next play will be something I’m developing for Theatre503 as part of my 503Five attachment. It’s going to a little different from my usual stuff but also a change to stretch myself as a theatre writer which I’m always grateful for.
Interview by Sofia Moura.
True Brits will be showing at this year’s Vault Festival until Sunday 22nd February 2015. For more information on the production, visit here…