As The Special Relationship starts performances tonight (26 February 2020), we talk to author Hassan Abdulrazzak about transatlantic diplomacy, immigration, Middle Eastern playwrights to watch and returning to Soho Theatre 13 years after his Baghdad Wedding debut. Time to get booking!
Hassan Abdulrazzak‘s new play The Special Relationship, telling true stories from the sharp edge of US deportation, runs at Soho Theatre from 26 February to 21 March 2020. It’s presented by Synergy Theatre Project, which specialises in working with prisoners and ex-prisoners.
In America, foreign nationals can be deported after serving prison sentences. Some of them are British. Caught in the transatlantic tango between Donald Trump and Theresa May and proudly presented by a gun-toting immigration officer, these are their true stories of double punishment and separation from their loved ones.
The Special Relationship was researched in collaboration with Prisoners Abroad, a UK charity supporting British citizens imprisoned overseas and returning to the UK. Esther Baker directs for Synergy Theatre Project.
Talking to… Hassan Abdulrazzak
Playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak is of Iraqi origin, born in Prague and living in London. His first play Baghdad Wedding premiered at Soho Theatre in 2007 to great acclaim. It went on to have productions in Australia and India and was also broadcast on BBC Radio 3. His other full-length plays include The Prophet, Dhow Under The Sun, Here I Am and Love, Bombs and Apples. His short plays include Trump in Palestine, part of the Top Trumps season at Theatre 503, Sinbad and Lost Kingdom. He has won the George Devine, Meyer Whitworth, Pearson Awards and the Arab British Centre Award for Culture.
Hassan has also translated plays by Imad Farajin, Laila Soliman, Jawad Al-Assadi, Hanane Hajjali, Abdullah AlKafri and Wael Qadour; has published numerous essays and poems; and is currently developing a number of theatre, TV and film projects. In addition to his writing, Hassan holds a PhD in molecular biology and has worked at Harvard and Imperial College.
How do you feel returning to Soho theatre 13 years after Baghdad Wedding?
Baghdad Wedding was my first play. I was a novice and the success of the play caught me by surprise. What has stayed with me was the reaction of the Iraqi audience who felt for the first time that they were represented on stage, not as terrorists or fundamentalists but as fully rounded human beings. I also had a short play on at Soho in 2012 (Sinbad, part of Arab Nights, produced and directed by Metta Theatre). It’s wonderful to be back in the building. This feels like a homecoming.
What was your inspiration for The Special Relationship?
When I thought of the word ‘deportation’, I mainly pictured people of colour being deported from Britain or Latinos from the United States. These two groups were the ones I read about in the news, particularly following the Windrush Scandal and Trump’s election. When Esther Baker, the artistic director of the Synergy Theatre Project, told me about British people deported from the United States whom she met through the charity Prisoners Abroad, I was intrigued. She asked me to investigate their stories for a potential play, and I immediately agreed. The stories I collected were so shocking and unique that I decided to use the verbatim form to present them.
How did you research the piece with Prisoners Abroad?
Prisoners Abroad is a charity that looks after British ex-prisoners who were incarcerated overseas when they are deported back to the UK. The staff had selected deportees who were happy to talk to me but would not tell me anything specific about why they were deported. It was up to the deportees what information they wanted to share with me. Every interview was a surprise.
Three things began to emerge. One, that the stories had an immense power by virtue of what the deportees experienced going through immigration detention in the US as well as what they witnessed happening to fellow inmates. Two, the stories corroborated one another to a high degree even though the deportees had been living in different parts of the States. Three, that many of the stories had a ‘you-couldn’t-make-it-up’ quality. I let go of my initial plan to write a purely fictional play and embraced the idea of going with the verbatim form.
Did anything surprise you about this play as you were writing it?
As someone from an Arab background, I was aware of the hysteria that followed 9/11 regarding Muslims living in the West. What surprised me while researching this play was the increasingly draconian laws that have been adopted since the 9/11 tragedy, on both sides of the Atlantic, to limit immigration and increase deportation. These laws have affected people of all backgrounds who have nothing to do with terrorism, including the British people that the play focuses on.
What’s been the biggest challenge of staging these real-life stories in a way that will inform but still entertain?
Verbatim theatre can be very static and monologue-heavy. We have set out to create something that is much more dynamic, fun and, frankly, a bit mad. This meant being inventive in how to present those stories. The play consists of a series of short scenes that zigzag in time. The testimony of the deportees is juxtaposed next to the speeches and tweets of Donald Trump, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. There is comedy and dance and surrealism as well as harrowing stories of loss and redemption.
How did you get involved with Synergy Theatre Project?
I first met Synergy’s artistic director Esther Baker at the Christmas party of the Knight Hall Agency and we got on very well. I also knew Neil Grutchfield, Synergy’s new writing manager, who liked my second play, The Prophet (Gate Theatre, 2012). What Esther brings to the production is dynamism. Esther is superb at telling complex stories with clear and economic stage images that have a certain muscular quality. She is also a brilliant dramaturg, and working with her and Neil on the play has been a total joy. Her passion for this project will come across to the audience.
What do you think of the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the US & UK?
The phrase can be traced back to 1946, when Winston Churchill addressed Westminster College in Fulton, Mississippi, where he and President Truman received honorary degrees. Britain and the US had fought two world wars together and the bond between the two countries was strong. But that bond fractured somewhat after the 1956 Suez Crisis. The US put pressure on Britain to withdraw from Egypt and not oust president Nasser. It’s probably fair to say that, from that point on, Britain became the junior partner in the relationship.
Over my lifetime, the biggest test of the relationship was perhaps when Britain joined the US in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This has lead to the image of Britain as being America’s poodle. It was a missed opportunity for Britain to redefine the terms of the relationship. I always find it rather sad now when commentators feel obliged to dust off the term every time there is a visit by a US president. The UK reminds me of a lover who is still harping over an ex that has long since moved on.
You’ve translated many plays. Which Middle Eastern playwrights do you think we should be paying more attention to in 2020?
Hanane Hajjali is a very exciting Lebanese writer and actor. I had the honour of translating her play, Jogging, which Hanane has performed around the world. Hanane mined the story of Medea to reflect on the plight of women in her country. She has won the 2020 Gilder/Coigney International Theatre Award.
The tragedy of Syria has meant that an entire generation of Syrian playwrights now live in exile. One of the most exciting voices of that generation to emerge in recent years is Wael Qadour. I’ve translated two of his plays, The Confession and Chronicles of a City We Never Knew. The latter play was presented during the readings that Manara Theatre (a company I co-founded along with playwright Hannah Khalil and actor/producer Taghrid Choucair-Vizoso), co-organised at the Gate Theatre last year under the umbrella of the Shubbak Festival. Wael is one to watch; he is going from strength to strength with every new play.
You’re also an accomplished scientist. Does this help your writing?
Science teaches you how to research deeply and ask probing questions. These are essential skills for writing plays. I am also interested in writing about science. I have written a play set in a stem cell lab that deals with the phenomena of fabricated scientific findings. If any producer interested in science plays is reading this, get in touch!
In a nutshell, why should audiences see The Special Relationship?
If you love stories that are surprising, shocking and, above all, true; if you love your drama to be laced with generous helpings of comedy and dance, then The Special Relationship is, most definitely, the show for you. Book your ticket now. You won’t be disappointed!
The Special Relationship runs from 26 February to 21 March 2020 at Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1d 3NE, with performances Mondays to Saturdays at 7pm and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets are priced £10-£18.50. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!