Whilst the Birmingham Rep’s own theatre undergoes reconstructive surgery, the company has used the opportunity to expand their ‘offsite’ programme and produce projects all over the city. One that is definitely worth booking up for is ‘Mustafa’. Co-produced with Kali Theatre Company, the piece was performed at Birmingham MAC and can still be seen at the Manchester Royal Exchange Studio at the end of April.
Written by Naylah Ahmed, the play tells the story of Mustafa, a devout Muslim who has been jailed for the manslaughter of a teenager who died during an exorcism. Within the prison, strange supernatural happenings punish those who mock him and it soon becomes clear that there is more to this man than empirical evidence can explain. Both Mustafa’s ‘Westernised’ solicitor brother and the rule-book abiding prison guards have to decide whether they believe that Mustafa is still battling with the Djinn he exorcised or whether he is a dangerous religious man capable of murder. Munir Khairdin plays Mustafa as controlled and softly spoken, emanating the meditative steadiness of a man attempting to contain a spirit. With something of the raw humanity and prejudice in ‘The Green Mile’, ‘Mustafa’ explores the nature of ‘otherness’, of the fear and suspicion of the unknown.
The play explores what is it to be Muslim in the modern world, comparing the differences between Mustafa and his brother Shabir – one who sought retreats in Pakistan, and the other who adapted his accent and dress for professional acceptance in Britain. The play examines how these men deal with each other’s choices, with non-Muslim assumptions, and with Muslim extremism.
The real highlight performance comes from Paul McClearly who plays Len, the elder prison guard. A good-hearted, down-to-earth Brummie, he finds himself completely ill-equipped to understand a man whose life is operated by the spirit and not the body. Whilst he believes him to be a good man, he does not have the resources to comprehend Mustafa, and the development of their friendship is delicate and moving. There is an on-going conflict between the banality and superficiality of modern life with the depths sought in prayer and spirituality. In one striking and potent juxtaposition, Mustafa goes about his prayers whilst outside his cell the prison guards prattle about ‘Pam’s party’.
The play’s subtle dialogue hints at the universal experience of anyone who categorises themselves as ‘outsiders’. Just as Kali’s raison d’etre is to use the voices of South Asian women to celebrate all diversity, the play encompasses something pertaining to all ‘otherness’ and all spirituality. Rants such as Shabir’s “All that education…all that time spent learning and not one of them even known how to treat another human being” resonate with issues of education, class, race, religion and all the ‘difference’ of the Diaspora.
The production at times tries too hard to pin down the script’s meanings and morals rather than leaving it to the audience’s imagination. However, with subtle, comic dialogue, a fascinating premise and human interest at its heart, ‘Mustafa’ is an exciting example of new writing in Britain. It is a play with enormous scope and imaginings and certainly worth seeing.
Mustafa is on tour and can be seen at Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester 26-28th April 2012 for more information or to book tickets please click here