Play review: The Funeral Director – “life and death collide”

funeral director - Life at SOAS

I decided to watch The Funeral Director, which won female playwright Iman Qureshi the Papatango Award, because I was struck by the authorship of the play. This was a play by an Asian, Muslim, queer woman about what it means to be exactly that in the UK today.

The premise may feel familiar: a Muslim couple in the Midlands, who run a Muslim funeral home, are sued for turning away a gay man whose partner committed suicide. On the surface, this seems to be derived from the 2012 incident of the Colorado baker who turned down a gay couple’s wedding cake. The loaded point of difference, however, is that the couple, Ayesha and Zyed (played by Aryana Ramkhalawon and Maanuv Thiara respectively), are Muslim. So, when the media furore emerges, the couple is typified as not just being discriminatory, but “as another example of Muslims refusing to assimilate into British secular liberalism”.

The play constantly grapples with these inscriptions of the self and society. As funeral home managers, Ayesha and Zeyd’s profession is moderated by community goals. So even as Zeyd empathises with Tom, whose partner dies, he agrees with Ayesha’s decision to turn him down, as she says, “[her] mother would”. This fractured sense of self: where/who you are, and how much of it you can express being ultimately circumscribed by layers of society, is a deep concern of the play.

But this isn’t where the concerns of queerness and religion end: part of why Ayesha turns him away is because she struggles with her own sexuality. In the face of a loving relationship – humorous, understanding and supportive (depicted beautifully by co-lead actors)  lies Ayesha’s reluctance to have sex with Zeyd. This reluctance, at the outset, is deeper and not rooted in shyness or primness, (as happens with stereotypical representations of Islamic and brown communities on stage). Instead, depictions of sex simmer, are as manifest on the stage as the ever-present funereal cold chamber. Foreplay, a birthday gift involving a dildo, feminine sexual pleasure, are all depicted and discussed. For that matter, the play does not even shy away from depicting homosexual romance between Ayesha and her once best friend (and once possible lover), Janey.

In fact, these clear-cut representations are what makes the play so powerful. The very components of living – religion, politics, sex, love and death – are typically represented on stage and literature as philosophic concerns of heterosexual white men. To see Ayesha and Zeyd grapple with them, in the ordinariness of the everyday life, is startling, if only in its ordinariness. Qureshi’s writing is at its strongest when she takes seeming contradictions of living, like faith and sexuality, and places them side by side. She does this with a rare dignity and sensitivity, careful to not overpower one side with the other.

The strength of the play is its dialogue about these contradictions. Never preachy, and delivered with a comfortable back-and-forth, the dialogues weave humour into the complexities of living. The one weakness of its play is its music, simply used for transition. Even as singing is a central theme in the play (which Ramkhalawon’s voice is particularly suited for), the interstitial music does not really contribute to the overall experience. Fortunately, not much of the play relies on this music. Rather, the play is dialogue-heavy, which can often work against holding the attention of the audience. But as the full house on a Tuesday and the rapturous applause from the audience at the end indicated, that was simply not a problem.

It’s rare to watch a play that manages to retain the tenuous balance of minority politics, religion, sex, family and sexuality. It’s even rarer to see these interactions unfold in the face of death, quite literally. The Funeral Director attempts to walk this tightrope, and it finishes the act, staying upright. It is worth the watch, if only because sensitive depictions of queer, Muslim women on stage remain the rarest of it all.  

The Funeral Director is playing at the Southwark Playhouse till 24 November 2018.

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