Daniel Nelson



Image by Tricycle

Sounds like 8 May 2015? But actor John Hollingworth started writing Multitudes, which runs at the Tricycle Theatre in London on 19 February to 21 March, in 2011.  And when Indu Rubasingham took over in that year as artistic director - the first British Asian woman to run a major theatre - she said she would like to support the development of the script.

The finished product is controversial as well as topical, because it’s about a 30-something white woman, Natalie, who converts to Islam, and who finds that some of the fallout is toxic.

In an interview with OneWorld this week, Hollingworth recalls that when he started researching the idea he found that “the statistics are cloudy because it isn’t compulsory to declare what religion you are in the census and there’s no box to tick to indicate that you have come to Islam”.

A 2010 survey suggests there about 100,000 British converts, with twice as many women as men – “so we are looking at about 60,000 people.”

Having created a character, Hollingworth “went on Natalie’s journey, going to meet two imams in Bradford and spending a day with new Muslims at the Islamic Cultural Centre at the Regent’s Park mosque and speaking as much as I could to women who have been through this process.

“It was very difficult to find women to discuss conversion – or reversion, to use the Muslim word – because it’s a deeply personal journey of faith, and people are understandably coy about sharing that.”

He stresses, however, that this, his first, play “(I describe myself as an actor who writes, because it’s very early days for me”) is not verbatim theatre, based on interviews: “It’s completely a work of fiction. There’s nobody real in it. Natalie’s journey is a bit of an Alice in Wonderland journey. Once you make that step you find yourself in strange and unexpected situations with people. But it looks at a journey that I think is very relevant to the society that we live in.”

Natalie’s journey is the lens through which the play looks at multicultural Britain. “This whole multicultural happy-clappy hippie-dippie love-in is a fantasy,” says one character.

Nevertheless, Hollingworth is insistent that “I didn’t write the play to deliver a message. I’d shy away from that.”

The title, he explains, is taken from a Walt Whitman poem: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’

“The way I see Britain,” explains the actor, “it is large and it does contain a multitude of contradictions and many different things, and there should be balance, a harmony, between those things. The play hopefully relishes and celebrates the spectrum of different voices that make up modern Britain. Britain is not just a single etiolated commanding white voice.”

The authenticity of the piece has been strengthened by the input of the four British Asians in the cast.

“They were very generous”, says Hollingworth, “and they weren’t afraid to say ‘That’s not right’, ‘I don’t think he’d say that’, ‘I think the word you mean is this…’

“They were also happy to talk about their background and their experiences of growing up in this country – either of racism or Islamophobia, or of the opposite, of stories of ‘No, I didn’t have a problem, there wasn’t any racism at school – it was fine.’”

As a result, he points out, the play owes more than most to those who have worked on it.

·         Multitudes is at the Tricycle, 269 Kilburn High Road, NW6, until 21 March. Info: 7328 1000/ 7372 6611/  info@tricycle.co.uk

+ 26 Feb & 4 March, post show Q&As, free with ticket price

+ 11 March, Women and Islam, discussion, 6.15-7.15pm, £5

+ 18 March, “Our Essential Values” – The end of multiculturalism and  the future of diversity in the UK, 6.15pm-7.15pm, £5

* A play for our (election) time

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