The Funeral Director
English Touring Theatre and Papatango Theatre
The Funeral Director by Iman Qureshi tackles sensitive subjects without sensationalising them or passing judgement. But the measured approach taken also removes much of the drama from the play.
Things are not going well for Ayesha (Aryana Ramkhalawon) and her husband Zeyd(Assad Zaman). The British Pakistanis run a Muslim funeral parlour and find themselves being sued for sexual discrimination after refusing to arrange a funeral for a gay white male’s Muslim partner. On a personal level, their marriage is becoming strained; Ayesha has always been reluctant to have a child and now seems indifferent to sex. The return of Ayesha’s childhood friend Janey (Francesca Zoutewelle) compels her to consider questions about her own sexuality.
Iman Qureshi is careful not to take sides in the moral debate; the only character whose behaviour is condemned as unacceptable is Janey’s homophobic mother who never actually appears on stage. This makes for a play in which the characters are nicely shaded. Ayesha’s refusal to perform the funeral is based on calculative reasoning—she fears offending, and so losing the custom of, the Muslim community—rather than emotional or religious reasons. The evasive approach taken by Tom (Edward Stone) in trying to arrange a funeral for his partner suggests he may be aware of, and trying to get around, Islamic attitudes to same-sex relationships. His bringing a legal case against the funeral directors might be motivated by a desire for vengeance rather than justice. There are, however, also contrivances in the story—conveniently, Janey is not only gay, she is also a human rights lawyer.
The care taken to achieve balance stifles the drama. The strain of the legal case moves Zeyd from a compassionate character (without his wife’s knowledge, he coaches a rival firm how to perform a Muslim funeral) to someone hiding behind fundamentalist dogma as a coping mechanism. However, author Qureshi shies away from making Zeyd a classic tragic character by holding back and refusing to let him be consumed by his demons. The cathartic release of a tragic ending is denied the audience.
Director Hannah Hauer-King shares the author’s restraint. The play opens with a stunning scene giving the misleading impression that Ayesha is cuddling a baby whom she is actually preparing for burial but disappointingly this imaginative approach does not continue. This is a play with little tension. Whole scenes pass with characters conversing while standing immobile.
The Funeral Director is a thoughtful exploration of a range of viewpoints on the complex subject of Islamic attitudes to same-sex relationships and does not offer simple solutions. The suggestion that individuals must be prepared to challenge attitudes that do not reflect contemporary society means also the subjective views of the individual are given precedence over beliefs that may be sincere.
Although thought-provoking, a measured approach and leisurely pacing prevents The Funeral Director from being a completely satisfying drama.