Team ‘East is East’ talks Direction, Culture & Acting

The ‘East is East’ team spoke exclusively with DESIblitz about the play’s 25th anniversary and how the piece encompasses a new vision.

"That's how I start and that's what leads to the eventual character."

The highly popular comedy-drama, East is East, has returned to the theatrical stage, celebrating its 25th anniversary.

From September 3-25, 2021, the REP Theatre in Birmingham is hosting the humorous yet insightful spectacle.

Audiences can feast their eyes on Ayub Khan Din’s famous story of strict father George Khan and his dysfunctional family.

Set against the eventful backdrop of 70s Salford, the plot offers a comical look at unwanted marriages and cultural misunderstandings.

It also addresses more serious topics such as racism, interracial relationships and abuse.

There was a famous movie adaptation in 1999, starring legendary actor Om Puri as Zahir ‘George’ Khan. The play was actually first performed in 1996 at the Birmingham REP Theatre.

Returning to its home 25 years later, the play boasts a wonderful cast. This includes British Asian actor Tony Jayawardena and seasoned actress, Sophie Stanton in the lead roles.

The new production will also get a fresh perspective from illustrious theatre director, Iqbal Khan. The creative maestro stamps his own twist on this successful tale.

With The Guardian describing it as a “magnificent revival of a culture-clash classic”, fans are treated to an absolute epic.

DESIblitz exclusively met up with Iqbal Khan, Tony Jayawardena and Sophie Stanton about the importance of East is East and what they bring to the production.

Iqbal Khan

Team 'East is East' talks Acting, Culture & Direction

Iqbal Khan is the creative director who has brought the invigorating 2021 version of East is East to life.

As the associate director at the Birmingham REP, Iqbal has had an enlightening career with his innovative plays.

His successful projects for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) have shown his appreciation for acting, methodical approaches, and informative productions.

However, it’s the twist that Iqbal applies to his plays that has intensified the attention he has received.

For example, his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (2012) was set in contemporary Dehli. Whereas his interpretation of Molière’s Tartuffe (2018) took place in the Pakistani-Muslim community in Birmingham.

It’s these inventive visions that set Iqbal apart, which he admits is down to his brother:

“He was bringing back records of Bob Dylan, opera and recordings of Shakespeare.

“I was exposed to every kind of cultural phenomenon.

“My brother would light a candle and read to us and bring these stories alive. So that instinct was always there.

“We’d listened to recordings of Shakespeare and record our own versions of these plays. So it started very young.”

It is apparent that these early memories of Shakespeare helped shape the way Iqbal sees the theatrical world.

Motivated by Shakespeare’s special writing style, Iqbal is showcasing his own daring style by going against the grain.

With an abundance of understanding about cultures, language and theatrics, Iqbal has applied the same innovations to East is East. 

Connecting the Piece

Team 'East is East' talks Acting, Culture & Direction

With such a grand and memorable story on his hands, Iqbal did not change the approach he took when constructing East is East. 

The talented director always has a logical mindset when deciding how a certain project will work:

“I think every time I do anything new, any new production, I’m always asking myself the question, ‘why now?’.

“What’s the vibe of this piece? How can I connect this piece with a new audience?.”

With the viewers in mind, Iqbal can carefully piece together the elements, which will distinguish this play from the others.

The mixture of experienced and emerging actors is one approach that Iqbal has taken. It means both old and new audiences can appreciate the emotions of the story.

More importantly, Iqbal believes those who are not familiar with the story is the most exciting prospect:

“There’s a whole generation of people who’ve never seen the film, who’ve never seen it in the theatre. So, it’s a great honour to be sharing it.”

He continues to reveal how he will intrigue this new wave of fans as well as pleasing the older generation:

“I think we’ve got an incredibly exciting, bold design for this piece and an incredible new kind of musical score.

“Felix Dubs is an MC who I’ve employed in this and he’s brought a whole new, fresh spin to how the music works in it as well.”

So, as well as tremendous acting and stage presence, the play will captivate audiences more with its enticing music. Playing on the numerous senses of the audience will help encompass the messages of the play.

When discussing the importance of this, Iqbal reports how the comedic story is still dramatic.

The cultural significance of the play is impactful, yet fans should not lose sight of the loss felt by George Khan:

“There is this image of a man who’s literally breaking down throughout the piece and the world as he understands it is falling apart.”

The play has a catalogue of themes, traditions and emotions oozing out. Hence there’s no doubt that Iqbal has truly envisioned a creative masterpiece.

This is something, which he hopes to carry on with future projects. His pursuit of more inspiring theatre work is a testament to his relentless work ethic.

When discussing a potential play surrounding poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, Iqbal claimed it would be “an extraordinary privilege.”

This “incredibly important story”will surely entice the savouring fans.

Sophie Stanton

Team 'East is East' talks Acting, Culture & Direction

A household name within British TV, Sophie Stanton is a diverse and thought-provoking actress.

Her numerous appearances on soaps like Eastenders and The Wilsons, as well as stints on shows like Gimme Gimme Gimme make Sophie an experienced artist.

Many plays have demonstrated her impeccable skillset. This includes RSC’s As You Like It (2019) and The Taming of the Shrew (2019).

With a great catalogue of diverse projects, Sophie is also playing the role of George Khan’s wife, Ella Khan, in the theatrical production, East is East. 

A much-loved character within the story, Ella is strong, hard-working, supportive and extremely conflicted. However, Sophie appears to have a great grasp of Ella’s life:

“My read of Ella is that she’s not an ever so conventional white working-class woman.

“I think potentially if she led out a conventional, white working-class, northern life, she would have been deeply bored and frustrated and unhappy.”

Sophie develops on this point by declaring:

“By conventional, I mean, possibly having a job at the age of 16. Certainly marrying somebody of her class and bearing children at a young age.

“She has a much broader and progressive mind and sensibility than that.”

Many viewers find compassion for Ella under the restraints of George. However, Sophie interestingly states that George is not the ‘villain’ many make him out to be.

This is compelling for fans and actors alike as the 2021 play will unravel certain traits, which previous productions haven’t touched.

The most important factor which Sophie highlights is how the two cultures fuse yet clash.

Displaying the humour, frustration and anxiety amongst the contrasting cultures means the audience can relate to the story whilst some may relive similar incidents.

Culture Conventions

Team 'East is East' talks Acting, Culture & Direction

With such a focused vision and honest approach to her work, Sophie admits that culture is the dominating factor within the play.

Not only does it showcase the longstanding traditions of Muslim communities, but how these impact people who have been raised in a culture that separates itself from those traditions.

For example, Sophie admits that the children are “neither white nor are they Pakistani” but Ella “buys into some of the restraints of his (George) culture and his religion”.

This is where Ella shines. Her role as the moderator between a tough George and their unruly kids is fascinating.

However, when problems start rolling within the household, Sophie teases at Ella’s reaction:

“She’s absolutely accepted his ways and his culture and his demands.

“So to confront it outright would be an anomaly and would be just out of the norm of their relationship.

“But what we see in the play is that it bubbles to a point where she can’t keep it in any longer.”

This hints at how Sophie will make the role her own.

Having such an in-depth knowledge of the two cultures and how they differ mean she can give another showstopping performance.

The proficient actress highlighted this when preparing for the role. In true methodic fashion, Sophie admits she did not dive too deep into South Asian history:

“I tend not to over-research when I play any role because I think you can be desperately burdened with a sense of responsibility.

“Ella knows about Indian politics and history through George, and through reading newspapers of the time.”

This is quite clever as it stays true to Ella’s character and brings a naturalistic aura when Sophie hits the stage.

Tony Jayawardena

Team 'East is East' talks Acting, Culture & Direction

Similar to Iqbal, Tony Jayawardena has had a fascinating career, working with great organisations like the RSC and has also appeared on the West End.

Tony is no stranger to success and has become known for his outstanding performances in several plays. These include Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical (2015) and Twelfth Night (2017),

Working within theatre, film and TV, the British Asian actor takes on the prominent role of George Khan. However, he almost didn’t pursue his dream career.

Like many Desi’s within the arts, Tony was sceptical about whether a job within drama was viable:

“Careers in the arts to me didn’t seem like a reasonable option, certainly from what I was encouraged to do by my family.”

Although, it was the guidance of a teacher, which helped Tony accept what he was destined to do:

“You remember your brilliant teachers, whether they be at school or in life.

“I had a wonderful drama teacher who encouraged me in this because she could see that I was good and that I had the ability and that I had a passion for it.”

When Tony’s on stage, audiences view this passion and skill. His vocal stature, detailed expressions and comical flair are perfect attributes for East is East.

When factoring in the loud, humorous, strict and unforgiving personality of George Khan, Tony explained to DESIblitz how he gets ready to perfect the role.

The Perfect Fit

Team 'East is East' talks Acting, Culture & Direction

Tony and East is East’s relationship began decades before he was cast for the play.

Reminiscing about when he first saw the movie in 1999, Tony states that he was taken back because of its cultural stance:

“As a British Asian, I hadn’t seen a lot of British Asian characters in films, so this struck a massive chord.”

This led the skilful actor to always hold the piece close to his heart. Thus, when Iqbal approached Tony for the play, his decision was already made.

The challenging thing was to make the character of George Khan his own. Tony reveals the process starts off by analysing the script and language:

“I always start with the script. Those words carry the truth of who they are. Those words carry their intention, their motivation, their worries, their fears, everything.”

This exceptional mindset is what has surely made Tony triumph in his previous roles.

By absorbing the script and character perceptions, Tony is then able to mould himself to personify those impressions. This is particularly the case when playing a character like George Khan.

Who is not only the protagonist but also has the most chaotic journey in the play. Although, Tony realises intense preparation impacts the audience.

To reach those legendary heights of theatrical actors, Tony maintains that the groundwork is most important.  Building the excitement with the other cast members is equally vital for him:

“It grows when I find the other actors I’m working with and can look in their eyes and we can talk to each other,

“Rehearse together and develop these stories together. That’s how I start and that’s what leads to the eventual character.”

This demonstrates how intuned and committed Tony is to his craft. This is reinforced more by Tony’s viewpoint on how theatre can affect society:

“If you’ve got a country that is successful in the arts and in culture, it’s often successful in so many other areas.

“It means that we are working brilliantly together as a society.

“To have different areas of interest and to expand your mind and your thinking to make us all more intelligent.

“I think that’s a really worthwhile thing.”

The power of theatre is an attribute that is relevant throughout East is East, which Tony hopes the audience will see.

With such a fulfilling approach towards acting, there is no doubt that Tony gives a new lease of life to George Khan.

A Play full of Promise

East is East has been a smash hit both on and off-screen, astounding audiences with iconic performances.

With such a familiar and well-known story, the most difficult task with this production was to make it unique.

However, Iqbal succeeds in doing this with the impeccable cast and the passion they bring to the stage.

This is for certain with people like Tony Jayawardena and Sophie Stanton providing their own twists to such well-known characters.

Fans can also witness the dramatic stylings of Amy Leigh Hickman, Noah Manzoor and Gurjeet Singh. In addition, the grand set designs, immersive music and a joyful atmosphere will continue to leave fans in awe.

Both new and old generations can feel a sense of attachment to the wonderful scenes and entertaining dialogue.

Demonstrating the real issues occurring in South Asian culture with comical infusions is a recipe for triumph.

East is East will surely continue its evergreen legacy with such an incredible production. Find out more about the spectacular play and book your tickets here.

Balraj is a spirited Creative Writing MA graduate. He loves open discussions and his passions are fitness, music, fashion, and poetry. One of his favourite quotes is “One day or day one. You decide.”

Images courtesy of Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Helen Maybanks, The Telegraph & Royal Court Theatre.