We talk to co-founders of theatre company the Angry Bairds, City MA grads Sophie Foster and Nazish Khan, about paedophilia, being thrown out of printing shops, Nabokov, Jeremy Forrest, Jade Goody, “that feminist stage”, Edinburgh Fringe, Lena Dunham, student apathy, twitter anger, Gossip Girl…
Sophie and Naz are the Angry Bairds, and they’re about to hit London’s Vault Festival — a six week celebration of theatre, music and performance, which kicked off underneath the bustle of Waterloo last night.
When we meet Naz is fresh from a minor twitter controversy, involving the Liberal Democrats, an offensive cartoon, and the creator of BBC’s Citizen Khan.
She quickly explains how Maajid Nawaz, prospective Lib Dem candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, had the previous day tweeted a picture of Prophet Mohammed and Jesus together and that after seeing the angry reaction she had been “itching to tweet something. This morning after wrestling with it I tweeted to somebody that was really abhorrent with it, saying “Taking great offence is not an indication of having great faith.”
After Nawaz and Citizen Khan writer Adil Ray favourite the tweet, she received a message decrying her “Complete and utter liberal response and attempt to silence those that take offence.”
But as Sophie points out she has had no death threats as yet, which is a positive.
Today the Angry Bairds are also busy with preparations for Vault, in which they will be reprising two plays that they debuted at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Both are poised to cause controversy, although this is of course not their aim — rather it is to open the debate around sensitive issues that many see as divisive.
Sophie’s Project Lolita, a satire set in 2020, tells the story of 14-year-old Katie and 28-year-old Joe, who meet and form a relationship online in a climate where a zero tolerance approach to child abuse is being enforced. Naz’s play, Pole Factor, explores the limits of ‘blind obsession’, and includes themes of celebrity, media and Islamophobia, focusing on a non-practising Muslim named Coco and a reality TV competition.
Sophie lets me in on the final preparations the set for Project Lolita: “I bought an armchair for £10 last night,” she says. “It’s really hideous… it’s a really garish pattern.”
Naz adds: “It’s the shape. It was part of a three-piece suite originally…”
So, they’ve got the hideous but setting-appropriate sofa — aside from that, are they ready?
There have been changes since the Edinburgh shows, certainly — Naz admits that she used the Fringe as a ‘testing ground’ for what might come next, whilst for Sophie it’s about refining her previous work: “I’ve rewritten a little bit; we’ve both recast,” she says. “We’re a lot more prepared this time I think… my set has changed; I had a really minimal set before. It was literally just a bed and a chair.”
And now, of course, there’s the hideously patterned sofa for London audiences to enjoy.
Last year’s Fringe was the first they had visited as a company, and having been warned to have as low expectations as possible (including being told that an average audience size is a paltry three people), Naz says receiving good reviews was extremely encouraging: “If we’d gone there and had been playing out to empty audiences every night we probably wouldn’t have been encouraged,” she says. “When you get an audience, when people out there are appreciating your work, and are interested… people would come up to me and Sophie to talk about the play.”
It can’t all have been positive, though — considering their plays are about paedophiles and Islamophia…
As it turns out, it was a high street printer in Edinburgh who took the most offence — and threw them out of his shop.
Naz says that, at first, she thought he was joking — until he became quite stern: “We got great reviews, and obviously the next morning you go and print them out,” she says. “He saw my Pole Factor leaflet, and evidently it’s a Muslim girl on a pole… he printed them out and refused to give them to us. He said he couldn’t do it.”
“He said,” Sophie recalls, “I don’t want to help you to promote this play.” He wouldn’t give them to us; he wouldn’t sell them to us… He didn’t even see the play.”
Although, naturally, they did invite him along to make his own mind up. But then, it seems to be those who haven’t seen the plays that have been quickest to take offence. Sophie says: “I’ve got a reactionary response from people who haven’t seen it. People said when we were hanging up flyers, “Why would you write about that? Why would I want to go and see something about that?” But when you actually see it, it’s about a lot more than that.”
Naz says: “If you write anything with any form of passion, somewhere it’s going to upset someone… it’s easy to typecast and say, “Oh, this is about Muslim extremism.” But they are about people and relationships. Mine is more of a satire on what happens when you follow any form of extremity, whether it’s a relationship, or celebrity… Lolita is more about desperation and loneliness online, and the perils that you face when you’re in a bad place.”
Sophie adds: “In that world, you never know who you’re talking to online. Paedophilia is one area that it covers, but it covers a lot of others as well…. I think it’s a controversial subject, but it’s not a controversial play.”
What makes them most angry?
Naz is clear: “Ignorance makes me angry. People just judging people. We’re all subject to it; we’ve all said stupid things without really knowing. But I just think in this day and age, with the amount of knowledge and information that we have, ignorant opinions, no one actually assessing things properly, is really infuriating.”
Sophie adds: “A lot of what we write is about the media, and the influence that it has on the general public. People’s willingness to just believe what they believe, and they can turn just like that, especially with celebrities. One minute they’re the favourite, everybody loves them and all they have to do is be in one negative article and then it’s tweets and death threats and hate mail.”
Jade Goody, she says, is the perfect example: “She went into the Big Brother house, she was out and out racist,” Naz says. “You can make small excuses for her because of the way she grew up… but again, it’s ignorance. She’d been in the media long enough to have advisors. And then she gets sick and suddenly she’s the people’s princess.”
Sophie says, “That was the direct influence of the media. It was the way that they spun her story. And they do that with a lot of things; they do it with the subjects that we cover.”
Naz believes that “The media just need a scapegoat. They need something or someone to hang on their opinion.”
Sophie says she noticed a desire for instant gratification within media — for something to immediately to make us laugh, or make us angry, without the need for much consideration or deep thought — after graduating university: “In the student paper, in the opinion columns,” she says, “there were lots of people just ranting away and not backing it up with anything… I didn’t necessarily think it whilst I was at uni, but afterwards.”
Naz believes that “It’s not a matter, nowadays, of good journalism — it’s just persistence. If you’re persistent enough, you get enough followers, suddenly your opinion counts. But that doesn’t mean you’re a good journalist, it just means you’re reactionary.”
Do people shy away from dealing with difficult topics, do they think — either in their medium, the theatre, or elsewhere?
The answer is yes, although Naz believes that it’s the only way to challenge and develop new ideas: “There’s nothing wrong with having awkward subjects,” she says, “whether it’s theatre, or whether it’s a musical. It’s about getting people to open up.”
They list Lena Dunham as one of their influences — so, have they been watching this series of Girls?
Sophie’s enthusiasm is clear: “Yes. I love Lena Dunham. I think what she’s doing is really different from anything else at the moment and I think she’s just really honest and refreshing. The writing is amazing, and the characters and dialogue are so well-developed.”
It’s this raw honesty that they want to reflect in their work.
Gossip Girl is also cited as an influence, which might seem surprising, but as Naz says, “It’s modern… I think there is this idea that if you do theatre that everything that you write is…”
Sophie interjects: “Chekov, Harold Pinter… I’ve got Sting and the Police, Morrissey… we are creatively influenced by all sorts of music, television, theatre.”
They name their favourite writers as Ibsen, particularly The Doll’s House, and Caryl Churchill, “When I was going through that really feminist stage” (Naz), and Patrick Marber for Closer (Sophie).
Nabokov, obviously, is also on the list of influences — is there anything intertextual in Project Lolita? “Is it a modern day version of Lolita?” is a question Sophie gets asked a lot, she says, “and it’s not. I think I was actually more influenced by things that are actually happening, you know, in the news. Jeremy Forrest, the teacher who ran away with his pupil — that’s a very similar context to the play, and that was one of the things that influenced me writing it.”
You could say he was one character, easy to demonise, that the media found difficult to pin down and thus found to exist in an unusual grey area — although, as Sophie says, this depends on the media: “If you read the Daily Mail, it was all “paedophile Jeremy Forrest.” Personally I don’t think he was a paedophile.”
Naz says, “It’s the title, isn’t it? ‘Paedophile.’ A teacher and a 15-year-old? If that 15-year-old was 16 in a week… that’s not making excuses for him abusing his power as a teacher, that’s a different subject.”
Sophie adds: “There’s this blanket: you’re a paedophile or you’re not. I struggle with that.”
Moving on, how did Naz go about balancing so many divisive topics in Pole Factor — Islamophobia, reality TV, tragedy?
“For me it’s a snapshot of life; where someone is,” she says. “Everyone’s lives are busy; we all have conflicting views… it’s meant to show that complete fabric; she’s got a Muslim background but she’s not practising, and then she finds herself thrust into the limelight and she’s capitalising on it, not quite aware of what’s going on.”
Finally, both Naz and Sophie have previously said that they’re not into happy endings — so, without spoiling it, can we expect fairly bleak endings for their protagonists this time round?
Sophie says, without revealing too much, that there will be “No happy endings. But for anyone who might be put off coming because it might be depressing and dark… my main actor, Moj Taylor, is a comedian as well so he brings a lot of humour, so it is quite light-hearted.”
After the intense subjects that we’re dealing with, this might come as a relief.
Project Lolita and Pole Factor will be performed at Vault Festival, Waterloo, between the 4th and 8th of February.
Originally published at https://www.thenationalstudent.com.