After its London preview in The Park Theatre on Monday, Vinay Patel’s debut play True Brits we decided to catch up with this brilliant new writer to talk about writing his first play and his first trip to Edinburgh.
Vinay is a young writer from South East London. After spending some time pursuing a career in Film, he recently turned his hand to writing for Stage whilst studying for his MA at Central School of Speech and Drama and discovered he really enjoyed it. Since then, his short plays have been produced at the Bush, Theatre503, the Park, and the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre among others and he has won competitions run by Ideastap, the BBC, the National Youth Theatre and Shine Drama.
As well as True Brits, he is developing a play with Poleroid Theatre to be staged in October at the Pleasance, Islington.
Please tell us a little about your play, True Brits.
So True Brits charts the life of a young British Asian man as seen through the lens of two national events – the 2012 Olympics and the the 7/7 bombings. It’s a little bit of a story about friendship, it’s a little bit of a story about love, and a little bit about growing up in a country that doesn’t know how it feels about you as well.
If Britishness is a thing, it’s found in the collective lived experience of the people, not in the minds of politicians.
Why is the play called True Brits?
Well it’s partly to do with a feeling I had when I was watching the Olympics in 2012 which was the first time I felt properly British in a long while. What that really meant I wasn’t sure yet, but I knew it was something I wanted to explore. I did a bit of research into patriotism and nationality and found a poll that stated the group that most identifies as British are British Asians. Which actually I was quite surprised to find. I don’t think that you find that fact reflected anywhere. It surprised me so much because in my mind they’ve been a relatively persecuted group the last few years and, what’s more, top of that group was British Muslims, who have been the most denigrated of all, which, for me, raises the question as to what True Brits are, if they exist at all.
That said, the title “True Brits” is meant to be a bit of red herring – I’m not looking to nail down exactly what Britishness is. For me, the only crucial part of national identity is a sense you belong somewhere. It’s from that place of belonging that you can hopefully desire to do the best you can for the people you share that space with, to take a responsibility for it and them. If Britishness is a thing, it’s found in the collective lived experience of the people, not in the minds of politicians.
Tell us about your inspiration and process:
What I basically wanted to do was create a play that reflected my serious concerns about identity whilst being as funny as I could get away with. Some plays become heavy when exploring identity, more like a lesson and that can put you off. I didn’t want the experience of watching True Brits to be an alienating or didactic one. I wanted it to be generous to a wide audience, to let them approach the issues it raises through the universal aspects, rather than it being some “authentic” lecture on specifics. Everyone knows what it’s like be young, to feel what you think is love and the subsequent conflicts and heartbreak that can come along with it.
Care to talk a little more about these issues?
A lot of people try to spend a lot of time trying to work out what is it to be inherently British when actually I think one of the most beautiful things about Britain is that it doesn’t have a constitution, so there is no inherent, defined, Britishness that’s set down in our laws and it becomes something that is necessarily negotiated with every single generation. Which makes it messy but fascinating. Scotland’s having that discussion with itself right now and I feel as though this is the first time that ethnic minorities have a pretty strong desire to get in on that discussion too, maybe because it feels like something that finally belongs to them as well. They’re part of the core, not just a colourful sideshow. In fact, I think the reason immigrant minorities are more readily willing to engage positively with national identity than, say, the liberal white middle-class, is because it was some affection for this land that brought their families here in the first place. All in all, this helps to broaden our idea of what Britishness might be. Abandoning it to the hard-right that always seeks to limit it is, to me, a shame, when the very concept of Britain, whether it’s currently working or not, is the coming together of different cultures and countries into one state for the greater good. The Olympics taught me that Britain is a place that wants to be able to love itself a little and to do that it helps to have some broad understanding as to what you’re about.
But when you sit down on the tube and the old lady next to you moves two seats down, that’s fear and that’s both more interesting and actually much harder to take than hatred.
I think, in our hearts, we all share a desire for collectivism to some degree. Nations are imagined communities, but they are still communities and they’re useful places to contain and amplify that desire. National anthems are best when they’re hymns to the people of a country than the countries themselves. National events provide a concrete opportunity for a people to display what they care about. When done well and honestly, it’s a good way to circumvent cynicism and the every-man-for-him-self attitude. Something Alistair Campbell, of all people, said about the Olympics is that the reason it “worked” was because the good feeling genuinely came from people, not top down. In the main, people disliked politicians getting involved at all.
But there is a darker flipside to all that – you can try and “be British” as much as you like but the belonging of the minority will to a degree always be dictated by the majority and that doesn’t have to involve a conscious hatred or rejection. The other issue I want to explore in True Brits is the everyday struggle for minorities, particularly for South Asians, in the last ten years to just get by. I think that the small everyday battles are more compelling than watching someone become an extremist or getting constantly beaten up in the street. When you get punched in the face by someone, you know they’re a racist and you know where you are with that, that guy hates you. But when you sit down on the tube and the old lady next to you moves two seats down, that’s fear and that’s both more interesting and actually much harder to take than hatred.
Has that ever happened to you?
Yeah, definitely – being a young Asian man in the shadow of 7/7 meant getting used to a lot of that! It hits you so much harder because there’s nothing you can really do about it, you can’t exactly report her to the police or take action like if you’re punched. And the worst thing is, is that you get it. You get why people move, or they look warily at you and whilst you don’t like it, you do understand. And that and lots of other little things suddenly put you on the outside, and I’d look at that happening and I’d think ‘is this society something I’m a part of?’ Even worse, it can begin to make you paranoid, like did that girl dump you because of that background or because it just wasn’t working, does her dad dislike you because he’s worried you’ll indoctrinate his daughter or because he’s worried you’re an idiot.
This is a play about a teenager doing the awkward growing up thing with the identity or race issues in the background, and that suits him, he prefers them there…until circumstances mean they come to the fore, whether he likes it or not. And yet, I feel hopeful for the future. Forget the headlines – polls tell us that we’re becoming an ever more tolerant, understanding society. For all our faults, we generally handle the complexities of our identity remarkably well and I think that’s worth celebrating and that’s in the play a little too. If we can’t do that, we’re just constantly telling ourselves how shit we are. Which is, you know, useful but if that’s all you get it makes you think “well, why bother with trying at all?”
Let’s talk about your writing process then. Do you find you sit down for an hour each day or so, or do you just let it all spill out until you’re done. Have you ever been struck by a bolt of lightning and had to write immediately?
In terms of process, I try to make sure I get in a few solid hours each day. I think if you tell yourself you’ll work solidly well for six hours, you’re lying to yourself. I’ll get maybe three or four good hours out and then my brain turns to mush. It’s important to try do the hours though. If I have a specific project I’m working on, I give myself a page or word count to hit.
Whether it’s a shyness or a weakness or an arrogance, everyone has tiny little facets of their personality they share with everyone else, and I think that honesty of feeling is what makes writing engaging.
I do get struck with ideas and that’s always the fun part. It’s usually in the shower and it’s a struggle not to slip and brain myself as I run out to write it down before I forget. In terms of the ideas, usually there’s something I find interesting and then I’ll do a bit of research or it might be something I’ll have read a lot about anyway. That process tends to be me writing from the very outermost edge until I reach the core, which is the characters, their desires, experiences and how that can arc into a story. True Brits was different, it was written from the inside out and it’s more a narrative of feeling, snapshots of certain pinpoints in time, rather than classically dramatic. So my process was to connect the dots really. I know I felt terrible here and I felt great here, now I just need to draw the lines to between points A and B. Except obviously there were more than two points. I feel like this is an honest way of writing, but it’s not exactly the easiest as it’s much harder to string a narrative together like that and still be coherent. It’s not the type of thing I write often, but I enjoy them more when I do as they’re precious and personal. Either way, I think you still need to find yourself in the work, whatever you’re writing. I can’t write until I hear the voices in my head from my characters and you need to find the bit of you that can speak from that place. Whether it’s a shyness or a weakness or an arrogance, everyone has tiny little facets of their personality they share with everyone else, and I think that honesty of feeling is what makes writing engaging.
Finally, as a debut writer are you excited to see your play being put into action?
Yes! True Brits will be my first fully produced play and although I’m absolutely terrified, seeing the rehearsals and the previews, and the care and attention that the team have given the play, I’m starting to have a feeling that it might be ok. I’ve written shorts before and they’re always nerve-wracking to put on, so this is that times ten. What I’m really looking forward to as a debut writer is sitting in an audience and watching them to see who leans in, who laughs, who gasps or puts their hands in their mouths. That’s the joy for me – watching an audience take in the play and invest themselves in something I’ve created. Even if it’s only one person who reacts or engages every time, I’ll take that!
Vinay’s play True Brits is presented by Rich Mason Productions in association with HighTide Festival Theatre. It is directed by Tanith Lindon and performed by Sid Sagar.
Performed 17.40 daily at Assembly Bailie Rooms, 31st July – 25th August excluding 11th August.