Interview: Madani Younis
Published in the Guardian, 25.11.2014
Madani Younis has every right to feel vindicated. His appointment as artistic director of the Bush theatre three years ago was greeted with surprise; his first season, with scepticism; and his new writing policy,with suspicion. However, as Younis announces his new season, it would be fair to say his theatre has blossomed.
Last year, the theatre reported a record £2.56m turnover, with audiences running at 92%. More than half were first-time bookers – a third coming from the theatre’s local community. Half the plays on its main stage were written by women. Half were by BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers. Other theatres will marvel at such stats.
Now, it’s seeing international success as well. Rory Kinnear’s award-winning debut The Herd, seen at the Bush last year, will be picked up by the American company Steppenwolf in April. Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which had its UK premiere at the Bush in 2013, is already on Broadway with members of the Bush cast in tow. There’s another transatlantic transfer in the works, as well.
That tough start must seem a long time ago. Oh yes, says Younis: “I’ve spoken to a lot of artistic directors that run buildings and they all – without exception – spoke of the difficulty of that first year. You’re trying to create a slate of work, build a team around you and advocate for what you’re doing to your stakeholders and the press. It’s a challenging period of time.”
Younis, 35, with a skyscraper quiff that might keep the hair gel industry afloat on its own, has just announced his new season for next year. Following Caroline Horton’s Islands, a clown show about tax havens that starts the year, Younis will direct The Royale by Marco Ramirez – a freewheeling semi-biographical piece inspired by Jack Johnson, the first black boxer to become world heavyweight champion.
Younis says he’s interested in cultural heroes, and likens Johnson to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jay Z: “He’s a figure who transcended his sport to speak to the politics and the history of his day.” He hopes to continue “looking at American identity from another vantage point” – a vein of work begun with Disgraced and Cush Jumbo’s Josephine and I.
In April, the Bush will host the London premiere of James Graham’s play about 1970s political extremism and police tactics, The Angry Brigade, before opening a new Rebecca Lenkiewicz play called The Invisible, which considers the impact of cuts to the legal aid system, next summer.
It’s an issue Younis feels strongly about. His wife works as a solicitor in Bradford, and many of her clients are dependent on legal aid. “For the first time in 100-odd years, barristers and solicitors are protesting on the streets,” he points out. The coalition has already declared legal aid a second-term issue. He’s out to make a difference.
What you start to sense is a theatre speaking up for its community. Under Younis, the Bush seems increasingly driven by the real, on-the-ground concerns of its local community: tax avoidance, institutional racism, the right to protest, legal aid. Chris Thompson’s Albion picked at the appeal of far right groups; Barney Norris’s Visitors, the day-to-day experiences of an ageing population; Robin Soans looked at the immigrant experience in Perseverance Drive. These plays aren’t dealing with fluffy abstract ideas. They’re rooted in lived experience.
Younis wouldn’t have it any other way. “My job here is to shorten the gap between art and life,” he says. “These are the questions that we are all struggling with, whatever strata of society we come from.
“If we’re not asking these questions now, in another 15-20 years, these buildings will become the privileged enclaves of a chosen few, and no longer feel that they belong to a broader constituency.”
The diversity of the Bush’s work also reflects its community. Younis admits the numbers look “neat,” but, he says, “at no point when programming that season did we raise the question of figures … We backed the work because we believed in it and what it’s saying about the world.”
Younis – a Yorkshireman with a father from Pakistan and a mother from Trinidad – was London theatre’s first non-white artistic director, quickly followed by Indhu Rubasingham at the Tricycle. BAME artists have flourished at both venues since – and, elsewhere, there’s a conviction that a truly diverse leadership is the surest way to ensure truly diverse work on Britain’s stages.
“I’ve not needed to tick a form to remind me of who I am or what my responsibility is,” explains Younis, a natural rhetorician. He’s critical of organisations that programme “one black show in a season” and consider themselves diverse. “[Diversity] is an attitude in this building, and that’s what creates change.
“Within less than 20 years,” he goes on, “half the young people in our city will be of dual heritage. Surely now is the moment to be asking the question, What is our relationship as cultural buildings to our city?”
Photograph: Bush Theatre