A playwright once told me that a good play will tell you exactly what they’re about in the title itself, because in storytelling, simple is good. 10 Nights is about a young man named Yasser and his decision to take part in itikaf for the last ten nights of Ramadan. The story is at once delightfully simple and gracefully complicated. Originally a one-man show written by Shahid Iqbal Khan, the production is directed by Kash Arshad and enacted by three people: Zaqi Ismail as Yasser, Safyan Iqbal as Aftab (Yasser’s friend who we find out early on has died), and Sumayya Si-Tayeb / Chandrika Gopalakrishnan who acts both as Aneela (Aftab’s girlfriend) and the performance interpreter of the show. The show is audio described, is captioned in English and Urdu, and inventively integrates British Sign Language throughout the narrative.
10 Nights is a brilliant meeting of the two theatre companies involved. Tamasha has been a platform for lesser heard voices since 1989, and this text explores a seldom-told experience of a young Muslim man grappling with his identity and ability to abide by religious discipline. During his ten days within the mosque, he dreams of thick chips and Priyanka Chopra. He bites his tongue while swearing, screams silently, and gets all of his prayers wrong. He grieves for his friend Aftab, who always wanted to observe itikaf but never had the chance.
The story was inspired by Shahid Iqbal Khan’s own experience of observing itikaf eleven years ago. “When I was trying to think of a fifteen-minute monologue piece for my assignment on a writing programme – Graeae Theatre’s Write To Play – it occurred to me that the practice of itikaf isn’t really that well-known outside of the Muslim community”, he tells ThisWeekLondon. Zaqi Ismail charmingly embodies the almost caricature-like characters within the walls of the mosque: Yasser’s overly-pious and condescending friend, his reprimanding father, and the family friend observing his 10th itikaf who acts as a knowing guide. The comical nuances of Yasser’s ten days within the mosque filled the theatre with knowing laughs. Some, like mine, from my own experiences with religious bargaining and familial shame. Others perhaps from our now shared knowledge of living through a very different kind of 10-day isolation with similar threads of frustration and self-realization.
Graeae Theatre Company, a British company composed of D/deaf and disabled artists and theatre makers, brings an entirely new dimension to this originally one-man show. Safyan Iqbal and Sumayya Si-Tayeb / Chandrika Gopalakrishnan are the friendly ghosts of Yasser’s past, and an integral physical presence in the unveiling of his spiritual journey. I found them to be a comforting presence and a potent addition to the setting of a mosque, a liminal space between earth and God. British Sign Language is used beautifully in parallel to the spoken narrative. Not only does it make the show accessible to those who are hearing impaired, but it opens up a space for everyone to observe the narrative differently. Despite not knowing BSL, I found myself looking more often at Safyan Iqbal, drawn to the ways she would express the unexpressed of Yasser’s character and story. The three of them, side-by-side, backdropped by the playtext itself, make for a truly unique performance that is at once bewildering and deeply accessible. Simple, complex, and very very good.
10 Nights continues at the Bush Theatre until 6th November https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/event/10-nights-2021/
Reviewer: Pooja Sivaraman
Reviewed: 18th October 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★