In 2003, Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of Hobson’s Choice was up for an for Olivier. She tells Liz Hoggard why she’s returned to it now, about messing with the classics and her struggle to get Asian stories on stage
“I’m really interested in what’s going on at the moment with racism and Islamophobia,” says Tanika Gupta. “So many people I know – myself included – have been verbally abused on the streets and attacked. I haven’t known racist violence since I was a kid in the 1970s, so it’s quite a scary time.”
The playwright tells a chilling story of a “nice-looking, suited white man” walking past her at a bus stop in London chanting “Tommy Robinson”. “And I thought: ‘Oh was that for me?’ It’s pathetic,” she says collapsing into laughter. “I thought about saying: ‘Do you know who I am?’ ”
That’s the thing about Gupta. She effortlessly undercuts bullies in her writing. For 20 years, she’s been telling stories about marginalised communities, race and women’s rights without being dull or preachy. Her plays and adaptations are colourful and very funny. But the rise of British nationalism is clearly making its way into her writing.
In 2003, when she adapted Hobson’s Choice – Harold Brighouse’s famous Salford comedy about a Victorian tailor who keeps his three daughters in servitude – and set it among modern-day British Asians working in the rag trade, it felt fresh and anarchic. The production transformed the Young Vic auditorium into an Asian fashion house, with mannequins in saris and rolls of colourful silk. It was nominated for an Olivier, “or as my mum called it, a Lawrence of Arabia award”.
And now that the play is being revived – for Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre – it’s a chance for Gupta to tweak the story yet again. “I was 16 years younger and just starting out. I was very scared of messing around with Brighouse’s play too much, but now…”
This time, Hobson’s Choice is set in Manchester’s Northern Quarter in 1987, when Margaret Thatcher was in power. It is a way, she says, of looking at recent history through a long lens. “But not too darkly, because it’s a comedy.”
In the new adaptation, Hari Hobson is a Hindu from Uganda. His three unmarried daughters work for him unpaid. But when Durga – the eldest – decides to marry Hari’s best worker Ali (a mixed-race Muslim), she takes charge of her destiny and starts her own rival shop.
“I was interested in writing something that was not necessarily within my own culture,” Gupta explains. “I had originally set the play very loosely in a Bengali family, whereas this time I thought it would be nice to set it in a Ugandan-Asian community and that it would be fun to look at a Tory Asian.
“I remember the writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who is Ugandan Asian, said that when she went to friends’ houses, they often had a photo of Ted Heath with a garland of flowers around it, because he let up to 60,000 Ugandans into Britain in 1972 when Idi Amin was expelling the entire Asian population. And looking at Tory politics at the moment – as we are forced to do – I kept thinking about Priti Patel, who is from a Ugandan Asian family. So I’m focusing on this Conservative-loving business class.”
Hari, played by Tony Jayawardena, is a comic patriarch with a drink problem, but you sense the pain of assimilation. The play has strong roles for the three sisters – Gupta describes it as “Lear meets Cinderella”. And Durga (Shalini Peiris) is the feminist heroine. “She’s straight-faced, dry-witted and plays them all, so she gets exactly what she wants. But she does it with love.”
A British-born Bengali, Gupta was brought up in an artistic household – her father was a singer, her mother an Indian dancer. “We had lots of Muslim friends and went to Eid celebrations even though my parents were Hindu. There were lots of mixed marriages.”
Today, she loves to mix things up in her writing. “I always worry about Asian adaptations versus straight-white adaptations.” Nor does she shy away from the classics. She gave Dickens’ Great Expectations an Asian makeover, and in 2016, she was dramaturg on Emma Rice’s modern mash-up of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe.
I asked Emma: Are we allowed to do that with Shakespeare? I don’t want to get shouted at
“I love Shakespeare, but going through A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Emma, we fell in love with him all over again.” In their version, Athens became hipster Hoxton. “I’d turn to Emma and ask: ‘Are we allowed to do that with Shakespeare? I don’t want to get shouted at.’ ”
In the old days, commissioners would tell her: “We need to find a season to put your play in” or “I don’t think we’d get an audience for that” – her stage adaptation of Meera Syal’s Anita and Me never had a West End run, despite being on the school syllabus. Most of the diversity on the London stage is still accounted for by black writers rather than South Asians, she adds.
But Gupta is on a roll. Last year, she won the prestigious £10,000 James Tait Black prize for drama for her play Lions and Tigers, which was performed at London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It tells the true story of her great-uncle – Bengali revolutionary Dinesh Gupta – who fought against colonial rule in the 1930s and was hanged by the British at the age of 19. “It was wonderful, because it took me 20 years to get that play on. It was workshopped and read and commissioned and rejected. It had a really long journey.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working as a refuge worker in a young, Asian women’s hostel in Manchester.
What was your first professional theatre job?
A workshop at the National Theatre studio with Indhu Rubasingham and Rosa Maggaria – who is designing Hobson’s Choice.
What’s your next job?
Red Dust Road at the Edinburgh International Festival in August.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Be patient. I walked away from things rather than seeing them through.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Toni Morrison. I read Beloved in my early 20s and that was the book that made me want to write. And Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Male actors often tell me how to fix my script and honestly, they should just not do that. Engage with the play and talk about it intelligently. Don’t just start criticising. Scripts are endlessly being worked on – it’s not like we don’t know. What we want is the actor’s interpretation of what they think that role is.
If you hadn’t been a playwright, what would you have been?
I was heading towards community social work, but I don’t think I’d have made it.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No. But I have to go to the toilet 17 times before a play.
She talks warmly about Alice Birch, who was also nominated for Anatomy of a Suicide. “She’s an amazing writer and she was so gracious. But I also thought: ‘It’s nice to win out over a woman who’s 20 years younger than you’,” she teases. “There’s something about being an old bird in the industry.”
Gupta always wrote stories as a child. But it wasn’t until her late 20s that she became a playwright. Prior to that she worked in an Asian women’s refuge in Manchester, and as a community worker in London.
Then she joined the Asian Women Writers Collective, where writers including Meera Syal and Rahila Gupta critiqued each others’ work. The group declared that Gupta was bad at prose but excellent at dialogue, so she was sent to a BBC radio-drama workshop, where she had her first play produced.
Today, she researches her stories via the internet, BBC Radio 4, or newspapers. “I often use the British Library’s India section. The only problem is that almost every playwright works there and we spend too much time drinking coffee and talking politics. But most importantly, I go to the theatre regularly. If I can’t get to see a good play, I read it, and this way I keep abreast of ideas and new forms of theatre. I genuinely think that a good play tells us something about the world we are living in today.”
She’s adapted Jackie Kay’s memoir Red Dust Road for this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. “It’s about growing up in the 1970s as the only mixed-race black girl in her school and the racism she encountered – but it’s so warm and funny.”
In September, her version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House will feature in Rachel O’Riordan’s debut season at the Lyric Hammersmith. She’s transposed it to 1879 India, where Nora becomes Niru – an Indian woman ‘exoticised’ by her English husband. “I did a very gentle adaptation and Rachel said: ‘You can go much further than that, Tanika. Get dirty.’ So it’s much more about colonialism.”
Meanwhile, she and Syal are writing a six-part TV series, about an Indian nanny who comes to Britain in the 1880s, for Lenny Henry’s Douglas Road Productions.
Her schedule is back to back and her voice is in demand. “That has never happened to me before – I just think people are demanding to see more diversity on stage,” she shrugs. “They’re a bit bored of seeing plays like The Lehman Trilogy.”
Born: Chiswick, 1963
Training: Modern history at Oxford – “I was in the same year as Boris Johnson, David Miliband and Patrick Marber.”
• Lions and Tigers, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London (2017)
• The Empress, Royal Shakespeare Company (2013)
• White Boy, National Youth Theatre (2007)
• Fragile Land, Hampstead Theatre, London (2003)
• Hobson’s Choice, Young Vic, London (2003)
TV: EastEnders, Crossroads, Grange Hill
• James Tait Black prize for drama (2018)
• Honorary arts doctorate, Chichester University (2017)
• Asian Achievers award in media (2017)
• Fellow of Royal Society of Literature (2016)
• BBC audio drama award for A Doll’s House (2013)
• Ethnic and Multicultural Media award for her Hobson’s Choice adaptation (2004)
Agent: Kara Fitzpatrick at Dalzell and Beresford
Hobson’s Choice is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre until July 6. Visit royalexchange.co.uk for details