This winner of the Papatango New Writer’s prize is a compelling and challenging piece of theatre to watch. Tackling the tension between ingrained personal belief and the ethical morals of wider, Western society, ‘The Funeral Director’ (by Iman Qureshi) does not shy away from the big issues and challenging the audience’s sympathies.
The question seems easily answered – are you ever justified in discriminating against somebody based on their sexuality? Hopefully the majority of people would say no. However, we cannot say for sure. It is this small grain of doubt that the play exacerbates, pitting rights against one another, and the consequent turmoil forces us to consider an uncomfortable alternative response to such a reactionary enquiry.
Centred on the lives of Zeyd (Assad Zaman) and Ayesha (Aryana Ramkhalawon), a married couple who run a Muslim funeral directory, the production is interested in boundaries, which is illustrated through the stage design. Their home is split into the warm reception room and the clinical preparation room, just as Ayesha is suddenly split between remaining loyal to her Islamic beliefs, and allowing herself to recognise and live her true self.
The chemistry between the married couple is chaste and at times endearing, however the lingering lack of affection between them, and their different views regarding having a family, forebodes it ending in inevitable doom. Zaman works a nice balance between pathetic yet understandable, and Ramkhalawon’s Ayesha is so engaging and heartbreaking that you just want to jump beyond the audience/stage boundary and give her a hug.
Her gradual breakdown is frustrating at times as she navigates through prejudiced, familiar, ideologies, however her unfailing desire to try and fix things, including herself, makes her impossible not to root for. Edward Stone and Francesca Zoutwelle also round out the cast as examples of LGBT experiences in rural small towns: one rejected and rightfully bitter, the other desperate to flee. While their characters are less multidimensional, and typically serve as exposition or contrast, they are not wasted potential.
Though at times the story slows down and becomes repetitive, however the sustained tension throughout demonstrates that this new writer is worth keeping an eye out for in the future. The show may not conclude with a rousing statement of triumph, or offer any explicit bias towards the debate between religious belief vs human rights, but still leaves a lasting impression and an overwhelming need to tell someone about what you just watched. Heartfelt and intelligent, The Funeral Director is dead brilliant.
PHOTOS: Traverse Theatre