Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced looks closely at the tensions between traditional faith and aspirational careerism experienced by a Pakistani-American lawyer. When it was staged at New York’s Lincoln Center it attracted a string of positive reviews for its bold characterisation and emotional intensity; it’s not a play for the faint-hearted, as director Nadia Fall explains as weh discuss the play ahead of its first preview at the Bush Theatre.
‘This is a play that really does get to you,’ she tells me. ‘it’s quite a feat to go through all these emotions so quickly – it’s like ripping off a plaster. It’s painful, and that makes it difficult to run this play several times. You can’t do that all in a day, because it really plays with the mind.’
The realism of the play’s emotional content stems from Akhtar’s ability to write from his experience as an American Muslim about post 9/11 tensions. Fall – who is also Muslim – said she was instinctively wary about taking on plays dealing with Islam (‘they have to be bloody good.’). She is also keen to avoid being drawn into looking at the play as purely a political vehicle. ‘I never approach a play through politics. I understand it, I appreciate it, but my interest is in thinking about who these people are. What are they trying to do to each other? What’s the psychology of the situation? If you understand that, the politics takes care of itself.’
Nonetheless, the play’s political context came into sharper focus in April following the Boston Marathon bombings. ‘The ideas [Akhtar] is talking about are very pertinent. Now, with the situation in Boston, some of that subject matter feels tougher. Ayad talks about a “blush of pride”, in the lead character’s words, about 9/11. Innately, the character reveals to himself and everyone else that he feels a kind of unforgivable pride about that, and he’s ashamed of it – but he feels the need to be honest about it.’
It’s inescapable that much of the play’s subject matter is as relevant to a British audience as it was to its US audience. Fall acknowledges this; America, she says, ‘has a kind of monopoly’ on the way people live their lives. However, although there are parallels between being a British Muslim and being an American Muslim, ‘we haven’t doctored the play for a British audience. We’ve not suddenly set it in Liverpool Street with a City lawyer. There are parallels, but we needed to root it in the time and space that it was written for.’
Fall is keen to note how quickly the cast adapted to the play’s setting. Given the story’s emotional intensity, she worked hard to keep the actors motivated and rooted in their roles. ‘When I approach a play it’s always from a human point of view – from the inside out. I think that’s important for the actors – that we have an understanding of the world of the play. So we read about the arts world, because [the lead character] Amir’s wife is an artist. We read about mergers and acquisitions law, because two of the characters are lawyers. And we read about 9/11 – but what really matters is the human situation, and the psychology behind what these people are doing and what they’re trying to get out of each other.’
For Hari Dhillon, who plays the lead character Amir, this is especially challenging. Fall is impressed with Dhillon’s ability to capture Amir’s temperament and overarching tragedy. ‘It’s a huge challenge for an actor to take that part. It’s a tragedy, and Amir has the arc of a tragedy – but unlike Othello, for example, or another classic text where it might take three hours for that arc to come through, Disgraced is a short sharp shock of a play. Hari has to go through a huge emotional journey in a short time, and he’s giving it a really good effort.’
Adding to the challenge of performing such a draining role, Dhillon and Fall faced another problem – Dhillon works full-time as an actor on Holby City. ‘It’s almost unheard of for TV actors to be let go for blocks of time to rehearse plays,’ Fall said. ‘Holby City have been really kind to do that. Hari’s an Asian-American man, so he comes with a lot of awareness of the play’s background.’
Undeterred by the play’s inherent and imposed challenges, Fall is intent on making it a big success in London. She’s aided in this by the fact that the Pulitzer Prize for Drama was announced just as Akhtar arrived in London to start working on its British run. ‘We had no idea that a Pulitzer was a possibility,’ said Fall. ‘It happened way after we’d all signed up to it.’ And although the Prize might be a boon for for ticket sales, ‘it’s very imposing from an artistic point of view.’
Even so, Fall felt able to make changes to ‘sharpen’ the play, with Akhtar’s support. Still, she feels there’s a particular burden in the way the play’s new-found publicity lifts the curtain before the audience are in their seats. ‘The attention is great, but it raises the stakes because people are really expecting something. I want the audience to know as little as possible and to be as open-minded and open to the experience as possible.
‘Of course, what happens when something gets this kind of profile is that people read about it, they make up their minds, or they decide what they think it ought to be about. That’s fine, but it does give a very different feel from a play where someone doesn’t know much about it.’
Publicity is a familiar challenge for Fall, who came to Disgraced after being assistant director on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the National Theatre, where she also directed George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma last year. Disgraced differs from both in its ‘short sharp shock’ structure, and Fall compares it favourably to the ‘intellectual and political’ arguments Shaw fits into The Doctor’s Dilemma. ‘Shaw always assumes a work which has a kind of solidity to it, and he allows characters to make time to talk to each other and chew the fat. In Disgraced, there just isn’t that time – and the characters are New Yorkers, which makes it even more time-pressured. I think that works, though – it shows the play’s urbanness and immersiveness.’
Fall sees that immersion as essential given that the characters in Disgraced are all, to an extent, aspirational – wealthy lawyers or artists. Akhtar aims to show people the flaws and tensions that lie beneath success, and to make sure audiences feel they can relate. ‘In a way,’ Fall says, ‘Disgraced shows us the kind of people we’d like to be. They’ve got connections, they’ve got money, and they seem to be enjoying a fabulous life in a fabulous apartment. But all is not well – it always has that kind of feeling. Ayad brings up lots of different ideas, and he really does look at it from everyone’s point of view. One moment you hate someone, then you agree with them, then you hate them again. That complexity is incredibly interesting.’
Fall feels sure the play will appeal to a London audience – not least given the Dhillon’s hard work on his role. ‘This is a really good piece, and I feel it’s just been sharpened even more. In that sense, I think we’re almost starting a brand new play.’ Given its strong pedigree in New York, and its Pulitzer, Fall acknowledges a great sense of responsibility too. ‘We’re over the moon for the play and for Ayad – but we’re all biting our nails and hoping we can do it justice. I hope to God we will, and I’m sure we will because we’ve worked really, really hard.’
Disgraced is at the Bush Theatre, London, from 17th May – 29th June 2013.