By Nishat Alam
Nishat from Khidr Collective talks with playwright maatin about his new play, DUCK, showing at Jermyn Street Theatre, London, from 12 to 18 July 2022.
Tell us about DUCK.
DUCK is set in 2005. It follows the story of Ismail, who’s a star cricketer at his posh public school. At the start of the play, he’s fourteen and about to become the youngest ever player in his school’s history to play for the First XI. He’s a British Indian and Muslim boy in an upper class, white institution. But until now, his success on the cricket pitch means that rather than stick out as different, he’s popular and accepted. As the season gets underway, Ismail faces challenges – from a coach that takes a particular dislike to him, to poor batting performances. As things start to go wrong for Ismail, he starts to discover how cricket might not provide all the answers for him, and how he fits into the world now that he doesn’t have the same status as before.
How did the idea of the play come about? Did you draw on real-life experiences when coming up with the plot or the characters?
There were a few different sources of inspiration for DUCK. One was definitely my own personal experiences being one of the only non-white and Muslim boys in my year at a very elite public school. But I must say I wasn’t nearly as good of a cricketer as Ismail is! I had many encounters that I would only later really understand as racist incidents, or situations that were made far more challenging because of my identity as a brown Muslim. So this play is an opportunity to revisit that recent past and put the lens of the audience right into the heart and mind of a 14/15 year old that doesn’t even realise what they’re experiencing in that moment. The play is structured as a one-person play for that reason, to put us inside Ismail’s heart and mind – and also because I was deeply inspired by Roy Williams’ Death of England, who I was then lucky enough to work with when developing the story of DUCK.
Crucially, I chose to set the play in 2005 because for me, and the character, I see that time and that age as such a turning point for being Muslim in the UK. I was at this inflection point as a teenager, and yet the world shifted so fundamentally as a consequence of the fallout from 7/7 – structural Islamophobia that we experience to this day was in large part formulated in the coming days and years. I felt that the setting of a school environment worked neatly for the world of the play, but there’s also this awful spectre of Prevent – which didn’t exist yet – hanging over it. I can’t imagine how much worse things would have been for this character under the constant suspicion and surveillance that Muslim school children now have to deal with.
The historic context of sports like cricket and even tennis being seen as ‘traditionally English’ is incredibly important when considering how players of colour are treated today. Recently, investigations into the racial abuse Azeem Rafiq faced at Yorkshire County Cricket Club were carried out with no consequences. How does this backdrop inform the ideas of race and respectability explored in DUCK?
Cricket felt like such a perfect domain to explore exactly this. Something so English and at once so Indian. Cricket has always been heralded as this game of cleanness – whether that’s the crisp white clothing, finger sandwiches for tea, airs of gentlemanly conduct – but it’s also a competitive arena, fiery, loud, antagonistic. As I’ve got older, I’ve come to interpret the rules and traditions of cricket as ways to exclude and police behaviour that we see echoed in all parts of our society, designed to keep most out and to preserve the sorts of attitudes that desperately need moving on from. It’s been amazing to see how cricket has transformed over my lifetime, not least because of how India has influenced the game in every domain.
Then we have the infamous ‘Tebbit test’ – where in 1990, Norman Tebbitt, a Conservative MP at the time, said all South Asians living in the UK needed to start supporting England in cricket, or should otherwise be treated as not British. The hostile environment isn’t anything new, and the cricket aspect of that really fascinated me.
I actually wrote the play well before Azeem Rafiq’s story came out, which now feels like a very tragic consequence. But the reality is that though Azeem’s story was shocking in its details, I remember reading Twitter the day he gave evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee, and there was this cascade of other people of colour describing their own similar experiences. It was amazing that Azeem not only shouldered the burden of exposing a deep rot in professional cricket, but that his bravery allowed others to come out and share their own encounters, which I hope felt like part of a healing process. That’s my hope for this play, too – to tell a story to give us, people who’ve gone through similar experiences, a place to heal and find comfort.
The play’s protagonist, Ismail, is nicknamed ‘Smiley’ - is that a name chosen by himself or by others? Would you say there’s an element of joy explored in the play and how so?
Great question! I can imagine him on the first day at school, and maybe his teacher couldn’t pronounce it or he’s trying to make a friend… that stuff is so hard when you’re young. And at some point, I think ‘Smiley’ became easier than explaining Ismail. I think he likes being called ‘Smiley’, but it’s also something he ponders over the course of the play (no spoilers!) I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how names can shape our encounters and experiences. I spent the first 30 years of my life with an English-sounding name (“Martin”), and only recently have I embraced the Arabic pronunciation at its heart (“mateen”, one of Allah’s 99 names.) But I’ve kept the spelling as it’s unique, and also to honour my parents intentions – they only wanted to make my life easier! In the same vein, there’s a ton of joy in this play, particularly the relationship between Ismail and his dad. They’re from two different generations, born in different countries, living different existences. But their bond is forged by love, and a love of cricket, too.
We’re really interested in your journey as a Muslim playwright. Can you tell us how you got into theatre, what your experience has been like, and any advice you can give to others who are thinking of a career in theatre?
I was lucky enough to be taken to the theatre a lot growing up, and developed an appreciation for it thanks to my parents. As an adult, I became increasingly attuned to the negative, lazy stereotypes of Muslim characters I was seeing across theatre, TV, film, where we even appeared at all! Eventually I decided I had to participate if I wanted things to change, rather than just complain about it. It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to set a course for a new career. I started out by applying for a Masters, and we’re about four years into this experiment.
My activism and my values are at the heart of my journey and they guide every choice and decision I make. I have benefited from a huge amount of privilege, some of which is seen in DUCK, and it’s my responsibility to leverage that and pay it forward. My career is less important to me than creating opportunities for fellow South Asian and Muslims who want to be in the arts – we can only change the industry by changing the power dynamics, and that starts by increasing our presence.
My advice would be to find like-minded people to work with, who either share or understand your lived experience. For us as Muslim artists in particular, trust, respect, and safety are paramount, as we are living a precarious existence as Muslims first and foremost, and any creative process should be underpinned by an awareness of that. Find a way to satisfy yourself in your creative endeavours. If that means theatre, great – what kind of theatre do you envision for yourself? Find a way to build that. I’m always here to talk to anyone who’d like to learn more because there’s very little transparency out there about careers in the arts and it always feels incredibly intimidating and terrifying. So please reach out.
DUCK is running at Jermyn Street Theatre from 12 to 18 July 2022, as part of the Footprints Festival of new writing. It’s directed by Imy Wyatt Corner and stars Gavi Singh Chera (Our Generation – National Theatre).