Josephine Balfour Oatts talks to Toby Clarke about his experiences writing a piece on faith for Fatiha El-Ghorri, a standup comedian he has met once.
This afternoon feels darker than usual. Beyond my window, I watch as trees bend themselves against the wind, while listening to the dial tone escaping from the mouth of my mobile. When Toby Clarke answers, his voice is warm – lit up – like those fiery autumn leaves sailing through the gloom outside. It has a slightly sleepy quality too – I’ve caught him on his afternoon off, prior to a rehearsal that evening.
Together, we trace the timeline of Making Fatiha, Clarke’s latest work for the stage. Running for one night only, the piece will be showcased as part of the Handle With Care Festival – an event spearheaded by the Camden People’s Theatre. Billed as a space in which artists are set to challenge the notion of the so-called ‘Snowflake Generation’, the programme is brimming with brave creative voices and a strong canon of new writing. “I’ve never really done anything like this before, actually,” he says, brightly. “This is my first autobiographical piece.”
Making Fatiha is set to be a storm. Treading the line between humour and offence, the play is a live discussion between Clarke and stand-up comedian Fatiha El-Ghorri. In just 60 minutes, the pair will debate El-Ghorri’s relationship with Muslimism and comedy, all without causing disrespect. The idea first came to Clarke one night in March earlier this year, when himself and his partner – who lives in Luton – decided to go and see some stand-up. “It was a low-key comedy night,” he muses. This was the night rising star El-Ghorri delivered a fifteen-minute set. “I was beguiled instantly” Clarke says, fondly, “a bit blown away by both her manner and the content of her jokes as well.”
El-Ghorri’s rapid progress in the comedy scene is certainly formidable. Shaped around her experiences as a young, Muslim woman, her acts have seen her move from open mic to professional gigs quickly. Her work seeks to challenge its audience, dispelling countless stereotypes that have been created around her religion and culture in the process. In this, she concentrates particularly on the notion of Islamophobia, giving rise to how quick societies can be to label or pigeon-hole Muslim people. Inspired, Clarke reached out to El-Ghorri one month after seeing her perform live. “She’s sort of on the cusp of being a really big deal,” he adds, notes of awe unmistakable now. They met at the National Theatre to discuss Clarke’s proposal – the first and only time that they have been in each-others company. Next time they meet, they will both be on stage.
Clarke is generous with his thoughts and volunteers his opinions readily, speaking for minutes at a time. Each word is carefully considered, his sentences motored by a keen intelligence. “If I were to describe myself in a word, I guess it would be as an atheist, verging on agnostic.” He persists, with a slight pause. “I don’t have a lot of faith, but I have faith in humanity.” Most interesting, is his grappling with the idea that two opposing views can exist in the same space. “I’m entitled to my opinion and she is entitled to hers.” He continues, “but there is no reason why we can’t connect on a human level.” Clarke maintains that he would never want to offend Fatiha deliberately. “My quest is to get a more thorough understanding of her belief,” he asserts. Though, because of the nature of the production, he is acutely aware that anything could happen.
Born in 1980, Clarke sits just between the Generation X and Millennial demographic. His extensive work in youth theatre has also provided him with a window into the lives of younger generations, within whom he recognises a “sensitivity when it comes to offence.” He is a great believer in the shared responsibility of injustice though, as well as the necessity of education and discussion as a means of opening a wider conversation. In contemporary society, the word ‘offence’ seems to have become more of a blanket term for feelings and thoughts that don’t yet have names. Although not unique to Millennials and Gen Y, these generations are championing new and diverse modes of speaking about urgent ideas (most notably around identity politics, mental health and climate change). Current shifts in public discourse are far too nuanced to be caused by a mere lack of resilience – now, the term ‘snowflake’ seems smaller and more reductive than ever.
In this sense, Making Fatiha is a play on this dialogue. However, it also experiments with form. Performed alongside dancer Kaaj Patel and musician and composer Roly Botha, the collision of Fatiha and Toby’s opposing viewpoints are married with choreography, text, puppetry and music. This creative shapeshifting is particularly interesting, given the company’s challenging of religious tradition. The piece is unscripted, save the pre-preparation of questions, video footage and a planned “demolition” of the Fourth Wall. “Hopefully it will challenge the audience more than anything” he says, enthusiastically, “Theatre is a brilliant platform for [work such as] this. It offers a balance.”
One of the main obstacles impeding Clarke’s understanding of Fatiha’s faith resides in the doctrines of its making. It is his belief that religious texts need to be tested and questioned – quite simply because laws that are still being followed were written so long ago. “Take slavery in The Bible, sodomy in both The Quran and The Bible for instance” he says, vigorously “I take more umbrage with Islam because there is something very totalitarian about it. Also, its mistreatment and representation of women – I just can’t make my peace with it.” In spite of their differences, Clarke hopes that Making Fatiha is able to achieve what the general media cannot, referring brazenly to the risk of misrepresentation (which is also symptomatic of social media). Unfortunately, the latter has become a hotbed for unfounded statements and sweeping generalisations – a place where fiction can become fact within nanoseconds.
So, there is certainly a huge element of risk involved within the production – not least because of its subject’s strength of character. “The wonderful thing about Fatiha is she’s fierce; she speaks her mind,” Clarke says, warmly. It will also be the first time in his career that he has performed onstage. “I’m completely out of my comfort zone!” He laments finally, with a good-natured chuckle. Conscious of the time, our discussion begins to soften and he signs off. The wind gives a steady murmur in goodbye, before crashing like the sea.
Making Fatiha is playing on Wednesday 30 October. For more information and tickets, visit the Camden People’s Theatre’s website.