“How would you describe British values?”
“Money, isn’t it? That’s what value means”
OCTOPUS is a three-woman play set solely in an interview (interrogation?) room. In a not-too-distant future, British citizens with “non-indigenous” heritage have to prove their ‘Britishness’ to remain in the UK or keep their benefits.
Written by Afsaneh Gray post-Brexit in 2016, this is all particularly apt in the wake of the Windrush scandal. A line about filling a quota for deportation is scarily prophetic: is Britain fulfilling Gray’s predictions? Does British society assess us merely on race and income?
If this is makes OCTOPUS sound like a grim evening out, it’s not. Director Rudi Gray, producer Lizy Jennings and the team had the audience laughing throughout, and there was a definite buzz to the room afterwards.
The play starts by toying with our ideas of reality versus fiction. The characters enter the stage casually, and start humming, rather than to recorded music. Is this actually the beginning of the play? Then the ‘real’ music does kick in with ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours!’: the first of many late 1970s punk classics. Shortly after, one of the three characters introduces herself as “Scheherazade…from One Thousand and One Nights”. The reply she gets is a request for “proof of I.D.”. Is she a literary character or a ‘real’ modern citizen? She later tells Sarah about how she’s going to “turn this into a tapestry”.
Has Afsaneh Gray turned real life into an art form with OCTOPUS, or should we view it as a fictional story? She seems to share some parallels with Scheherazade: born in Oxford, with an Iranian mother and Jewish father. She also shares with her character a love for punk music. Scheherazade wears a t-shirt of The Slits, and Gray describes punk as “a glorious wall of sound” in an article for Threeweeks.
Scheherazade’s own stories have a similar ambiguous relationship with truth. She tells of her mother swallowing an octopus whole, and her grandmother creating wings and flying. Her family stories are met with dismissiveness, but one does turn out to be true.
With such a simplistic set design (just a table and chairs) physicality and movement become really important, and Rudi’s direction manages this well. The actors take turns to play the interviewer and the interviewees, and their entrances and exits as scenes change form a circular movement round the table, suggesting the nightmarish cyclic experience they’re experiencing.
The other two victims to this process are Sara and Sarah. Gray wrote Sara (played by Jeevan Ravindran) as “the brown woman who’s a gold star citizen” but is still subjected to the same degrading system. She’s an accountant that earns £70,000 a year, pays her taxes, votes Tory (it’s heavily implied), and is willing to cooperate. Her favourite food is fish and chips, and she sings Mary Poppins in the shower. What makes her character interesting though, is that despite Scheherazade’s lines about art being ‘linear’, Sara is the only one of the three with noticeable character development. Our perception of her changes as her cold exterior relaxes. Her attitudes change as she realises the process is unfair.
Sarah (Serena Pennant) is in some ways the most challenging character to portray. She sees herself as the only white British woman of the three, releasing a never-ending stream of casual racism despite preaching the importance of political correctness. This guise drops when the problems she pretends to care about are focused on her, at which point she tells Sara: “don’t be so politically correct”. She is the ‘woke’ white Brit that’s been to a yoga retreat in Goa and pretends to love curry. She gets laughs, but is also annoying, and she’s meant to be. She is ironically the one character that does fit a stereotype.
This is okay, and not only because her behaviour is offensive and deserves to be challenged. This is okay because, while all three characters represent aspects of Britain, Sarah’s strikes at the heart of Britain’s current issues with race. As a country we do not view ourselves as explicitly or violently racist, but grave problems lie very close to the surface under a false cover of progressivity. When pressure is applied, they soon bubble to the top.
Both racism and awareness of racism are now institutionalised in Britain: we critique the system, yet perpetuate it. All of the characters are well meaning in OCTOPUS; Sarah is only ignorant, not malicious, and Sara comes close to Islamophobia, despite her good intentions. The punk element in the play is similarly aligned with protest. It is a means of rebellion, but all the while the official interviewing them has been drinking out of a Sex Pistols mug, and it is a symbol of the past, a part of British history.
Sarah asks, “It’s just funny, isn’t it?”
Is it? Is OCTOPUS, like the Sex Pistols are now, “just” uncontroversial protest? Or does it strike deeper than that?