10 Nights review – funny, soulful play hijacked by lack of drama

·3 min read

It is a tremendous relief to see a play about a British Pakistani man and his complicated relationship to Islam that does not travel down the beaten road towards radicalisation.

The disillusioned Muslim in Shahid Iqbal Khan’s monologue does have a radical moment, of sorts, but it comes as a joyous spiritual epiphany and it is his Islamic faith, in this story about grief and guilt, which saves him. Frustratingly, it is the shape of the story itself – or lack of it – that holds this funny and soulful play back from realising its full potential.

A Graeae and Tamasha co-production which weaves BSL (by Sumayya Si-Tayeb) and captions (in Urdu as well as English) into its drama, it centres around the ritual of itikaf – a 10-day spiritual cleanse over Ramadan, during which everyday company and comforts are abjured for prayer, seclusion and fasting.

Yasser (Zaqi Ismail) – a young Muslim from the “Walmersley massive” dressed in joggers, sports socks and sandals – submits to it as a way of pleasing his father and honouring his friend, Aftab, who has died in a car accident and whose story, drip-fed to us, is key to Yasser’s state of mind.

His itikaf is undertaken reluctantly, in a corner of a mosque he calls his “little hovel” and it leads to the Islamic equivalent of a dark night of the soul – or 10 of them – in which he begins to first see Aftab as a haunting and then finds enlightenment through prayer.

Directed by Kash Arshad, Yasser’s inner monologue satirises the performance of piety by his friends – one is a religious jobsworth, another tells him to check his intentions – and Iqbal Khan’s script has some excellently dry lines about faith and hypocrisy.

But he also presents an earnest spiritual awakening: Arabic prayers are said aloud, the 99 names of Allah are explained, and these are refreshingly incorporated, even though they sometimes sound like lessons in Islam.

A big reveal in the play tracks back to the source of Yasser’s guilt, but it does not explore the psychology behind what has been revealed penetratingly enough, and neither does it give the drama a full enough shape.

Ismail does a fine job of playing a group of men around Yasser who represent different types of British Pakistani masculinity, from his father and uncle to his smug friend Usman. He makes these voices distinct and builds on the comedy but is less good at capturing the depth of Yasser’s inner tumult, saying lines too understatedly so the story does not gather enough intensity. The pace stalls and even at only 80 minutes the drama feels lethargic.

Khadija Raza’s set is too basic, too – a white space with a curtain and prayer mats – while the decision to have Aftab’s ghost as a physical presence on stage (played by Safyan Iqbal) brings no drama with it.

Ultimately, 10 Nights has the potential to be very powerful but it needs more story to make it fly.

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