In August 2012, Meera Syal made history by being the first woman of South Asian heritage to play Beatrice on stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). The production, directed by Iqbal Khan of Much Ado About Nothing, was set in contemporary Delhi—the Indian soldiers returned from a United Nations peacekeeping mission; the Watch were servants in Leonato’s grand haveli(private mansion), and Beatrice was a contemporary Indian woman, treading a line between tradition and modernization within the patriarchal society of both Shakespeare’s Messina and modern Delhi. The director’s and actor’s interpretation of the character engaged with debates embedded in Shakespeare’s text, and drew twenty-first-century resonances regarding contemporary gender politics.
The genesis of the production began with an invitation for Syal to join the company by Michael Boyd (RSC artistic director 2003–2012). She had never before performed Shakespeare professionally, but had played Caliban in a school production of The Tempest. “I didn’t understand it,” she said, “and played the role for broad comedy, as one would at fourteen” ( Conner 2012). Since then, Syal has worked across film and television, and in musicals and sitcoms, and she has written a novel, Anita and Me(1996). In many ways she is the foremost representative of the British Asian experience in popular culture through, for instance, her groundbreaking BBC television comedy Goodness Gracious Me(1998–2001). Her return to Shakespeare as Beatrice for the RSC was, she said in the Conner interview, “scary,” but perfectly matched to her talents. The fact that Syal was not invited to perform at the RSC until the context of celebrating internationalism in the World Shakespeare Festival speaks to the state of diverse casting in British theatre. For a detailed analysis of the politics of casting and the marginalization of black and Asian actors in mainstream Shakespearean performance, see Jami Roger’s “The Shakespearean Glass Ceiling: The State of Colorblind Casting in Contemporary British Theatre” (2013).
The audience’s first encounter with Syal’s Beatrice took place in a pre-show, using improvised dialogue. She entered with Balthasar and approached the front row of the stalls. He provokingly tried to persuade Beatrice to marry a suitor—a middle-aged, balding Indian businessman—whose picture he displayed on his iPad. Indignant and outraged, Beatrice mocked him and left to find sanctuary upstage in a window seat. She put on her sunglasses, lit a cigarette, and hid behind an iPad of her own. Here was an image of a modern Indian woman firmly refusing the prospect of an arranged marriage, shunning old mindsets steeped in patriarchy, and at one with the rapidly changing socioeconomic climate in the digital era. In her analysis of the roles of women in the play, Syal suggested: “The women have a line they have to tread throughout. Their freedoms only extend so far, it’s like being on a leash and the minute you step too far you’re yanked back. And Beatrice treads that line [End Page 570]quite dangerously in the first half” ( Royal Shakespeare Company 2012: 5). This was demonstrated in her interactions with Leonato (Madhav Sharma), in which a clear gender hierarchy was established. Whenever Beatrice was seen to be crossing the line defining “acceptable” behavior, Leonato stepped in to curtail her transgressive actions. During her verbal sparring match with Benedick, Leonato placed his controlling hand on Beatrice’s shoulder to force her into submission and later worked extratextually, interrupting her with a loud shout—“ Beti!” (Daughter)—that brought her verbal exchanges to a halt. Beatrice’s clothes reflected contemporary Delhi fashion—a stylishly cut suit jacket, pencil skirt, and shiny red heels. In these shoes, Beatrice trod the unstable metaphorical line between this construction of feminine modernity and an adherence to socially ingrained gender hierarchies.
For Syal, the clear relevance of the text to Indian sociopolitics became unlocked during the rehearsals of act 4, scene 1. “At the centre of the play is something that is almost an honour...
Syal, 51, says that, for her, it has particular resonance as it reminds her of her own marriage to the comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar. 'He is my friend and always was. I absolutely know friendship has to be the basis for any long-term relationship.’
Syal and Bhaskar met in the mid-1990s when they worked on the sketch show Goodness Gracious Me. They went on to co-star in the sitcom-cum-chat show The Kumars at No 42 (Syal’s character Ummi played Bhaskar’s character’s grandmother). 'We’d worked together for 10 years before we realised we were more than just friends and collaborators.’ It was on a flight to Australia that they clicked – '20 hours together with not much else to do’.
But was there the Beatrice-Benedick element to them? That feeling of loving each other but not being able to express it? After all, Syal had previously been married for 13 years to the journalist Shekhar Bhatia. Maybe she felt once bitten, twice shy?
'No, I think it was more that both Sanjeev and I were aware of how tricky the situation could potentially have been. It’s hard to know how you feel when you are working with someone that closely. Performers often have strong feelings for each other but they may be temporary, an on-set romance, as it were, so we both felt we had to be careful.’
They married in 2005 and have a son, six-year-old Shaan. Syal also has a 20-year-old daughter, Chameli, from her first marriage.
She is one of our most popular actresses/writers/performers – with a career portfolio encompassing radio, television, books and plays – and one of the few Asian faces who is regularly on our television screens. And yet, she says, for all the success of Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars – which for the first time put Asian humour on the map of British broadcasting – it’s currently harder than ever to get something edgy commissioned.
'I think television has backed off from exploring certain issues,’ she says. 'When we did Goodness Gracious Me it was a bit of leap of faith. It had been successful on the radio but it was exploring Asian culture in a new way. We were, basically, being funny about our own culture and no one was sure how it would translate.’
But translate it did. Its brand of part-mocking and part-embracing an Indian stereotype clearly resonated with the audience. Now, she says, it’s all gone very Downton Abbey. 'It’s the recession,’ she tells me, shrugging her shoulders. 'We’re all about make-and-mend and the good old days and the rustle of crinoline. That’s how it is. Theatre is more experimental, though. You can always get a good play on.’
Syal made her breakthrough co-writing and performing on the radio show Goodness Gracious Me in 1996, which later transferred to television. 'I remember writing it all those years ago alongside Sanjeev and all the other writers and laughing so much I was crying. Then I’d wonder if maybe it was just we who found it funny and that, actually, it wasn’t in any way amusing and I’d lost my mind!’
She also wrote two novels, Anita and Me (1996) and Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee (1999). 'I loved writing them and I’m very proud of them both, but I realised I need to work collaboratively. When you write, you are constantly on your own, living in your head. It is a very solitary life and I don’t think that suits me.’
She says this feeling of alienation – of being on her own – came from childhood. The daughter of a Sikh and a Hindu, she grew up in Essington, a rural mining community north of Wolverhampton.
'We were the only Asian people there,’ she says. 'There were Asian communities in the towns but my mother wanted to live in the countryside. She said to my dad that if she was going to live in England she wanted the version with fields in it. She had grown up in the countryside and it was what she felt comfortable with. My father was much more of an urbanite.’
The effect was that Syal became funny. 'Lots of comedians will tell you they felt they were somewhat “other” while growing up. Comedy is a way of hiding that. It’s also a good communication skill. Racism is, in itself, comic. It’s ridiculous. Fortunately I realised that at a young age.’ She was called a 'Paki’ on a regular basis. 'It was that 1970s brand of racism, but once I made people laugh, they stopped bullying me. I refused to become a victim.’
Her role models were French and Saunders, Wood and Walters ('I loved the brand of comedy they were doing’). She did well at school and went to Manchester University to study English.
When she’d finished there she was about to go on to study for an MA in drama and psychotherapy when she won the National Student Drama Award for her play One of Us, which she’d taken to the Edinburgh Festival. She decided then that acting and writing was what she wanted to do.
Her career has now spanned three decades, placing her at the forefront of a cultural revolution that took place in comedy and entertainment in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
She really became a household name with The Kumars at No 42, which started on television in 2001 and continued for the next five years. It brought her that instant-recognition factor.
'Well, she says, 'it was Ummi that people recognised.’ Ummi was the grandmother and, for most, the funniest character in the programme. 'Of course, the thing about Ummi is that she’s an old lady. I often find age releases women [to be] the radical person they really are. Ummi asks the most pertinent and uncomfortable questions but she gets away with it because she is old. I loved doing it. We all laughed all the time and it was more like live theatre because it was unscripted and you never knew which way it would go.’
Syal obviously likes working in this adrenalin-fuelled way. When she first started out as a comedian, she took her one-woman show to India. 'You should have seen people’s faces!’ she says. 'No one knew what on earth I was doing there.’
Her grandfather decided to place an advert in the Hindustan Times looking for a suitor for her. 'I was 22 and he thought I ought to get married. I think he’d run it past my parents and they’d “forgotten” to mention it to me.’ When she arrived, there were sackfuls of letters waiting for her.
'I didn’t mind,’ she says, 'there was no pressure and I thought it might make great material for a comedy routine.’ But then it made her think. 'You don’t just marry one person, you marry their family. It made me question things. I had to think quite seriously about what was important to me. Could I, in fact, have an “arranged” marriage? Take on someone and their family? It brings a level of commitment and support to a relationship that isn’t really present in the West.’
In the end she decided it wasn’t for her. 'As much as I wanted to fit in it wasn’t the right fit for me. But it was a good lesson to learn about myself.’
Does she feel she straddles two cultures? She pauses. 'That’s a hard question because British culture to me is now such a melting-pot. In some ways we are miles away from the Paki-bashing of the 1970s and the threat of the National Front, which seemed quite real back then. My children are used to living in a multicultural society. Everyone wants to be Indian now! It’s all hennaed hands and bhangra beats.’
In the end she believes her dilemma isn’t about race, but about her work-life balance. 'As it is for most women,’ she says. 'It's a constant set of difficult decisions. If my mother were looking after Shaan I would work all hours. It’s interesting how we trust our family over other people.’
Her parents are still alive but 'they’re getting on’, she says. She and Bhaskar share the childcare. 'We have an agreement that while one is working, the other one is around more at home and that seems to be working out. After Much Ado I wouldn’t take another full-on stage role far away.’
Her overriding feeling is that she is enjoying her life. 'I just don’t regret anything. I never wanted to and I have always been quite clear about that.’ In Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee, the women make mistakes they do regret.
'Yes, I wanted to look at the sacrifices women make. My mother’s generation and the generation before hers had to make some seriously hard choices. We do, too. Our world has opened up – in a good way.’ She cites the character Shirley in Shirley Valentine, whom she played two years ago in the West End. 'She was written as a 42-year-old, a fedup, unappreciated, past-it mother. But now, for women, 40 feels young and vibrant!’
She does have one regret: not appreciating her youth more. 'I wish I’d had more confidence in my looks back then. I look at photographs of myself in my teens and twenties now and I wonder why on earth I didn’t get the fact that that was as good as it was going to get!’
She regards her greatest achievement to be the fact that both her novels are on the national curriculum reading list. 'I am so pleased about that because it means I wasn’t just writing about the Asian experience but about an experience that rings true to many people regardless of their culture. That’s really important to me.’
Meera Syal has been such a key figure in bringing the British-Asian experience into our sitting-rooms. Does she feel proud of that? She laughs. 'Well, in the end, I’m proud of many things and that’s good, isn’t it?’
Much Ado About Nothing is at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from Thursday (rsc.org.uk; 0844 800 1110)