The Big Interview: Madani Younis
White, middle-class, Oxbridge educated: these are the three things you need to be to make it in British theatre.
That is not my own opinion, but has been highlighted in the last 12 months by people including theatre critic Lyn Gardner and the academic and theatre director Jonathan Holloway, who both wrote in national newspapers about the fact that those three qualities are common to a seemingly disproportionate number of our top directors.
Nicholas Hytner (Trinity, Cambridge), the man who runs the National Theatre, also levelled the charge that UK theatre critics were “dead white males”.
So, our theatre is essentially the product of white middle-class Oxbridge graduates which is critically evaluated by exactly the same sort of people.
Step forward Madani Younis, the Bradford based director. Actually, we need to get used to writing the former Bradford-based director because he has just taken over as the man in charge of one of the UK’s most important new writing theatres.
On January 1, Madani stepped into the top job at London’s Bush Theatre, becoming the first Asian artistic director of a London theatre building.
The Bush was established in 1972 above a pub and soon became one of the most celebrated new writing theatres in the world, providing a seedbed for some of Britain’s best theatre writers.
Previous artistic directors include the legendary Mike Bradwell and Dominic Dromgoole, the man now running the Globe Theatre.
Madani’s predecessor, Josie Rourke, is taking over from Michael Grandage at the Donmar Warehouse – the theatre which has hosted Ewan McGregor in Othello, Gwyneth Paltrow in Proof, Kenneth Branagh in Ivanov, Jude Law in Hamlet, and Judi Dench in Madame De Sade.
Whatever happens on his watch, Madani, on taking up his appointment, becomes a significant footnote in the history of British theatre.
Not bad for a director who moved to Yorkshire just over a decade ago to begin his career in theatre.
And he is in a very strong position to now become one of the country’s leading theatre directors.
It is an impressive achievement for a young director who the Yorkshire Post highlighted as one to watch in our Bright Young Things supplement just three years ago.
Madani acknowledges that being neither white nor Oxbridge he will become a symbol in his new job.
“Me being here now is a moment, but it is only a moment. I hope it will become a catalyst for more significant moments to take place in our sector,” says Madani.
He has a tendency to proclaim when answering questions – it’s a habit that will hold him in good stead now that he is a figurehead not just of the theatre, but of British theatre and for Asian theatre makers. To take on those roles, you need to be the proclaiming sort.
“I think my appointment is a bitter sweet moment. Yes we should celebrate this as a first and that it is happening, but the bitterness is that it should have happened so much sooner. We look at other sectors in our country and we can cite examples of the children of immigrant parents who have gone on to achieve and to work in positions that 40 years ago would have been unheard of for our parents. Within theatre it has been a slower burn in us achieving those positions.
“This is a long overdue moment and those great black and Asian artists who came up through the 80s should have enjoyed it themselves.”
The child of a Pakistani father and Trinidadian mother, Younis moved to Yorkshire in 2002 to take over Asian Theatre School following an MPhil in playwriting at the University of Birmingham.
At the time ATS was a branch of the Leeds-based Red Ladder Theatre Company, run then by Wendy Harris.
At Madani’s leaving party in Bradford, Harris made a speech saying the thing that most impressed her about Madani was his determination and vision – although she did also note he was wearing a “very nice watch”.
The vision thing is something Madani carried through his 10-year-long career in Yorkshire – along with hard work, drive and a visual aesthetic that was always on show.
All this came together perfectly earlier this year when he reached the apogee of his career so far with The Mill: City of Dreams, a site-specific piece set in a disused Bradford mill.
The universal five-star reviews were well-deserved.
The Mill was the culmination of a story he has been itching to tell ever since he left Asian Theatre School to run his own company, Freedom Studios, in Bradford.
“I have always believed in Bradford and have always been inspired by the narratives, stories and characters that have been born in the city. Bradford will always continue to excite me because I think it is a city that knows who it is, dreams of what it can be and I hope one day soon it can achieve its dreams.”
He’s a London boy whose heart now belongs to Bradford. But his own narrative is about to take on a wider significance and the sensible money will be on Madani shaking things up when he gets his feet under the table at the Bush.
He certainly won’t toe any party line just because he has found himself in an important position – not if his previous form is anything to judge by.
When he first arrived in Yorkshire he was taken under the wing of the inspiring Geraldine Connor, a multi-talented theatre maker who recently died.
Early in his Yorkshire life, Geraldine invited Madani to her house.
“She sat me down and said there are two things I should never forget. The first was that as a black artist I can never fail and that secondly theatre remains the last bastion of the white middle classes,” says the uncompromising director.
“I subsequently discovered the first of those things isn’t true – you can fail and you can come back on top. The second thing Geraldine told me remains to this day a constant.”
The failure for Madani came with his show Happy and Married, which was not a critical success and remains the only real failure in his career thus far.
That show immediately preceded The Mill, his biggest success – and also his biggest risk.
Huge and sprawling, it was financially the biggest of his career. It demonstrated that Madani is not a man afraid of taking risks.
“When I was interviewed by the board for the Bush job, my mandate was simple. If they wanted more of the same, then I was not the right person. If they wanted someone who would honour the idea of their history, but be willing to write a new present, then that is what I could deliver, that is who I am.
“I will continue with my mantra that I have had while creating work in Yorkshire and that is that I am not afraid to stand outside in the rain, I won’t find a comfortable place inside just because it’s easy.” They’re bold words and he means them when we meet. That, however, was before he had really got his foot through the door. The Bush is moving to a new building, one which is more commensurate with its reputation, in Shepherd’s Bush’s old library.
He might still be willing to stand in the rain, but the truth he can’t escape is that he is now a figurehead, a man running one of the UK’s most significant theatre spaces and will be heralded as the first through a barrier. Madani refuses to allow the prospect to intimidate him. “Completely honestly, I do what is in my heart, that’s all I have ever done,” he says. “Wherever I am placed in terms of history, case studies, and an example for others – the thing I remember first is that I am an artist. I’m aware that people say certain things about my appointment, but there’s nothing I can do with that. Appointments and acclaimed shows are symbols of success, but they aren’t the reason why I get up in the morning. I get up to write about and to make work about and for the people who inspire me.”
Finally, prompting achieves a breakthrough. Madani accepts that a role that puts him firmly on the page of UK theatre history is quite an achievement. “Who would have thought the guy who came to Bradford to make theatre...” he trails off, before adding, with the steely determination he always shows: “Who knows what’s next.” Quite possibly the birth of a significant new era for British theatre.
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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