Unless you’ve been asleep or on sabbatical for the last eight weeks or so – you’ll know that the EU referendum has taken over the news and our social media feeds. The democratic decision for the UK to leave the European Union seems to have opened the doors to a new wave of overt racism and acts of prejudice, with heated debate over immigration and cultural integration one of the key issues. As the consequences of the leave vote continue to unfold – it seems Afsaneh Gray has released Octopus, an anarchic but poignant comedy, at the perfect time.
That was never the intention though. “The inspiration for Octopus came from a place far from political ongoings,” explains Gray. “The inspiration really came from conversations with friends from theatre – who are mostly of a non-white or non-British background and the frustrations we share.” The half Jewish, British-born writer with maternal Iranian roots reveals that she felt the theatre industry was almost “over eager for us to tell a story about our culture and backgrounds”.
The premise of the piece means that its opening, in the aftermath of Brexit, now holds added relevance. But what is the sea creature-titled show actually all about?
“It’s about three women living in a world where if you have one grandparent of non-English heritage, then you have to come in for an interview about your ‘Britishness’.”
“As these women attend these interviews and go through the process, their opinions and views are challenged and in the end they finally conclude on what Britishness means to them.”
As someone of Caribbean heritage myself, the idea resonates. What does Britishness mean to Gray though?
“To be honest, I don’t think there is such a thing,” she says. “Even the word is backwards and it’s quite strange because English people have somewhat taken ownership of it.” With talk of another Scottish referendum and mutters of dissatisfaction in Northern Ireland and Wales, do politicians have the right to use the word ‘British’ as a way to describe a united identity for the UK?
“There’s quite a troubling resonance about it all because now the narrative is about ‘taking back control’,” Gray adds.
The very plot of Octopus delves into the concept of taking back control in a serious, honest but light-hearted – and ultimately anarchic – way. But what impact does Gray think the Brexit vote will have on race relations down the line? Will we still be able to be light-hearted about it?
“It depends on what we [the government] do at this very moment,” says Gray. “It’s complex, because even during rehearsals we spoke about the fact that even white people (Eastern Europeans in particular) are now suffering prejudice and getting hurled abuse about being chucked out of the country.” A supporter of the Green party and not a fan of the Conservatives; Gray references former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s view on immigration in his 2015 general election campaign; “He acknowledged there were concerns about immigration but his priorities were making sure there is a decent minimum wage and that nobody should be undercut.” She goes on to discuss current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s stance in the referendum. “If he said what he believed during the campaign and explained the left-wing argument, then maybe the discourse as to why a leave vote happened would be different to what it is now,” she concludes.
With parents who adored and regularly attended theatre and a brother who is a theatre director, theatre was almost the inevitable for Gray – who studied medicine before turning to playwriting. “I was literally sat one day waiting for a friend and just started writing ideas onto a receipt,” Gray admits. “That eventually turned into my first full length play.”
Having snapped up a place on the Soho Theatre’s Young Writers Programme – she hasn’t looked back since. “I’ve done quite a few things here and there but Octopus will be my first proper run of a full length play. It’s a really big deal.”
After readings at the Greenwich Theatre and previews at the Old Red Lion Theatre, Gray has received positive feedback about its relevance and how the show seems to be about this very moment. “Edinburgh is an excellent launch pad.” she says. “It definitely feels getting it out there in the midst of Brexit is the right thing to do. I’d like to tour Octopus around the country.”
Does Gray think that the play would get a different reception in different parts of the country? With such stark geographical divides between ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’, could the piece provoke very different results on different tour dates? Gray says that she did notice a difference of opinion from the audiences regarding how “real” the setting and situational aspect of the play actually was.
“I found that those of a non-white/English/British heritage totally got and loved the piece and were excited about having their views and experiences represented.
“But when your “Britishness” isn’t something that needs to be explained; it’s a different story. Many of those people said that they couldn’t imagine something like that happening.”
What is it that she wants audiences to actually feel and walk away with after seeing the show?
“The light-heartedness makes the show more accessible,” she says. “But there are dark undertones despite comedy factor. I want people to feel angry – which I hope can be channelled into something positive, leaving people ultimately optimistic for change.” She describes the ending as challenging, exciting, interesting and new.
But Gray is worried about the future of the country, despite the optimism. “It’s looking really grim,” she says. “If we look at Trump in America and Farage and the Conservatives – I feel like matters of immigration aren’t really going to change. As a result, things will get shittier. The very reason people voted to leave the EU may not be fulfilled people will get angrier and angrier. I think it’ll get worse before it gets better.”
Let’s hope some of our politicians get a glimpse of Octopus and find some inspiration.
Image by CJM Booth