Beyond Shame

Derby Theatre


Beyond Shame is an attractive play, the staging simply effective, the production and acting accomplished, the moral deep and profound.

It’s written with profound thought, intelligence and sensitivity by Karim Khan; directed with the straightforwardness and delicacy it needs by Gitika Buttoo; and presented by Jasvinder Sanghera’s Derby-based company linked to Karma Nirvana, a not insignificant charity which she founded, we are told, following her sister’s suicide, perhaps or even presumably (though it is not stated for sure) by the potent, potentially explosive, issues the play explores.

The charity is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Of those, more in a sec. But from the illuminating, probing discussion that followed, it is clear it’s hoped the play may be able to tour schools (subject, presumably, to funding, which I would have thought – given similar projects - quite likely). Someone meanwhile, put forward the bright idea that, if taking four actors and necessary (even if reduced) creative team into, say, certain (not all) Primary Schools may prove impracticable, maybe Khan should consider producing a monologue version which might preserve much of the vital, indeed controversial, content. 

Both ideas are good ones. Both might be followed up. To be honest, the actual staging (direction: Gittiko Butto, Designer George Leigh: as many as five or more levels, quite clever) were indeed suitable for schools; though perhaps not for the Derby Theatre Studio. Of course, the studio atmosphere made it intimate, very much so, and this was a big plus. No need for a stage the size of The Lion King. But it was all a bit out-of-the-props-cupboard look. Yet that actually helped the actors. There was no glitter, so everything was focused on them, and on the text – and their highly effective speaking of it. For the script includes fun, some nice touches of sarcasm, moments of anger, moments of real tenderness. When the quasi brother-sister pair of Vinay Lad (as Ranj Sahora) and Zara Azam as the main character, Aalya Hussain (three of the four are of the Hussain family) get together, you almost feel romance emerging.

Except that one of the ancillary issues raised by this play highly, perhaps bravely, critical of dyed-in-the-wool, restricting, domineeringly, even violently imposed Muslim traditions is the LGBT issue. Fifty years after Roy Jenkins’ liberating UK bill, who, in Muslim terms, is allowed to be gay, openly, not in secret? It’s not quite the Iranian situation (desperate); or the Indian (horrid, maybe starting to modify). The block, the portcullis, the ‘thou shalt not unto thyself be true’ is in one’s own household, or indeed the wider extended family. Forced marital alliances.


This is a play that blows to bits the issue of imposed marriages, as ‘forced’ in the 21st century as Capulet upon Juliet in the Middle Ages, which this intelligent, often wise play takes as its major theme. An issue too often ignored, even skated over by mothers who have, maybe, or maybe not, been the victims of the same thing and are now cowed, forced, obliged to go along with – something that initiates, or at least reflects, a kind of loneliness in them too, the compliant, or in some cases willing, assistant perpetrators, a betrayal nonetheless, bowing to overbearing husbands, husbands’ brothers, cousins…’s like having half a dozen Tybalts (and his thugs) in the family.

Hence the arranged ‘marriage’. It’s true that some arranged marriages become true love matches. But more begin as a form of incarceration, and it may be imprisonment for life. Male heirs are striven after. Rape in marriage is not unknown, perhaps not so unusual. What Karim Khan’s play attacks, quite openly, is the deeply ingrained centuries-old attitudes which bring misery for countless young, perhaps teenage, if not ‘brides’, then ‘betrotheds’. And it’s made quite clear that boys can be victims of this too – are perhaps, it was surprisingly suggested, they are in a majority. So it happens all the time on the Indo-Pakistan sub-continent; but it happens here, in England too. Notably, all three youngsters’ accents are British, not some kind of Bollywood Gujurati or Urdu spinoff.   

Strangely, I would want to pick out the music as central, not merely ancillary. Leigh also does the score: it’s soft, lulling, supportive, intermittently optimistic, but deliberately not firmly reassuring. Musical question marks help raise moral question marks. It supports several scenes – the Lorenzo and Jessica scene between Ranj and Aalya was beautifully upheld by the sounds, I suppose taped, yet seeming to come from behind with the freshness of live soft percussion. It was a beautiful feature, a kind of fifth character That scene, incidentally, had the force of some of the great writers – Ibsen, Strindberg or Wedekind. She is beautiful. Frankly he is beautiful too. Here are two exquisite young people sharing intimate thoughts and fears, and with the most wonderful grasp and understanding of each others’ different, but not dissimilar,  angsts.


Azam is quite wonderful as Aalya – a superlative achievement and bit of characterisation - her impossible situation redoubled because her mother (the splendid Rekha John-Cheriyan) declines, or has not the courage, to intervene. It seems the former, because the mother is quite a strong character. Only at the end, as the family falls apart, do we see her beginning to sense the centuries old folly, and begin to grieve – for them all. Azam’s Aalya looks about 16 – just as her attempted intermediary sister Sofia (Joey Parsad) could pass for 18, 19, 20, but not much more.

Parsad gives in, and her baby might even suggest a contentedness or happiness with her new situation. Aalya doesn’t, and fights. Ranj is trying to control his life from another perspective. Beautiful, economical writing.

For a mid to upper teen, what a range of faces gave Aalya her unique presence. We admire her (as also Ranj’s) truthfulness, honesty, feistiness perhaps. She portrays the real thing: affecting, bright, not afraid to hold her own, indignant at unfairness, passionate for change. She is a Muslim British girl, astride two (or more) cultures: perceptive, clear-headed, and a breaker-out. Her face is mobile, a positive arrows-quiver of different grimaces, a lovely laugh but more telling forced, ironic smile; she only has to wrinkle her face and frown or sniff to convey meaning in loads. Her eyes speak equal volumes, never the same, darting, fixed, puzzling, determined.

‘She’s a brave girl. If you’d let her have what she wants, this would never have happened.’ I suppose this could be said about numerous spoilt brats aged 4 to 16. But here it matters. She is not spoilt; she is not pouting; she is not asking for a new toy, or a new computer game. But she is asking to be herself, and to choose the boy she loves herself, without insistent parental interference. She wants to change the very culture she is surrounded, enfolded, and as she advances through the teens to marriageability, potentially crushed, by. Except that she’s not. Time and again, her willingness to do battle, not to be a ‘submissive woman’, earns our unending admiration.                

‘Victims’, ‘Survivors’ are in words at the moment. Yet how apt they seem here: the entitlement of a – dare one say? – antiquated moral system to affect to such a point of despair the whole lives of their offspring, to the point of perhaps many committing suicide (better that than let down the ‘honour’ of the family – and that ‘honour’ also applies to ‘honour-killings’.


Can one imagine anything much worse? Intra-family slaughter? Even in Shakespeare, I think that could only happen by mistake, except perhaps for among royalty (King John-Prince Arthur, or sundry Yorkist-Lancastrian cousins).


And remember, this bold commission and this brave play stemmed partly from the suicide of the Jasvinder Sanghera’s sister Robina. She gives us more to ponder on. The need to ‘fight for what is right’, and to ‘shy away from these taboos. Dealing with problem ‘head-on’. These dire situations are … taking place not only in the sub-continent but right here in the UK. There’s an urgency ‘to recognise that these long held practices and behaviours needs to change, to prevent some horrific cases of forced marriage and honour abuse that are happening in households closer than you might think’.  

How can one not feel obliged to look up, stand up, speak up for these issues after seeing a stagework like this, which does indeed tackle these grim, hateful, sometimes ghastly, sometimes fatal issues ‘head-on’? This is a charming, hard-hitting, uncompromising stagework that, with equally charming performers, deserves to be seen and heard. And yes, schools, primary and secondary alike, are where the re-education should begin. 

We also need another play, perhaps from this same hand, which compels the male side of the chorus of morally self-righteous bullies to face up to its own actions. An Arthur Miller, in fact. To 08-09-18

Roderic Dunnett


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