ED2016 Columns ED2016 Theatre

Afsaneh Gray: What is Britishness?

By | Published on Thursday 11 August 2016


Afsaneh Gray’s play ‘Octopus’, being presented by Fine Mess Theatre and Paper Tiger Productions at Assembly this Festival, explores the notion of ‘Britishness’, in a dystopian world where those of ‘non-indigenous’ heritage are set a Britishness test by the state.
As an introduction to the piece, Afsaneh considers what Britishness means, and whether the concept is evolving in this post-Brexit world.

What is Britishness? In the wake of Brexit, this question seems particularly urgent. If we’re going to ‘take back control’, close the borders and hunker down with our ‘keep calm and carry on’ signs while the world burns around us (because that is the idea, right?), then we’d better figure out who ‘we’ are.

Unfortunately, as has become clear to me while writing ‘Octopus’, a new satire about Britishness and what the hell it is, the answer is not obvious. Could it be salt and vinegar crisps? A love of tea? An obsession with the weather? It sure doesn’t feel like tolerance anymore.

I wrote ‘Octopus’ because, as somebody with mixed heritage – my mother’s Iranian and my father was Jewish, born in Ilford, Essex – I sometimes find myself straddling the invisible border between ‘us’ and ‘them’, trying to distinguish the real meaning of the question ‘where are you from?’.

Sometimes people want to hear that I was born in Oxford or that I now live in London, but sometimes there’s an awkward pause, which I finally break by giving in and telling them about my background. “Oh”, they might say, “I thought you looked Jewish”. Or, “I have an Iranian friend”. If I wore a headscarf, or were black, I would be negotiating a different, tighter border.

‘Octopus’ is set in a dystopian world where anybody with ‘non-indigenous’ heritage is asked to take a Britishness test set by the state. If you’re really unlucky, you could be deported. It is the story of three women who find themselves caught up in the system and in their misapprehensions about each other.

There’s the white woman who doesn’t understand why she’s here, the brown woman who’s a gold star citizen, and the mixed-up, not quite white, not quite brown woman, who just wants people to stop asking her to define herself, because she doesn’t know what the answer is. This character, Scheherazade, is the one who comes up with the idea of the ‘octopus’ – many-legged and multi-faceted, just like her.

Scheherazade is a tapestry artist who loves punk music, that most British form of rebellion. Because we may not do revolution, but we’re dab hands at screaming out some sarcy lyrics about the government over a glorious wall of sound. She embodies this punk spirit, but the other two characters find that their own musical preferences – 90s music and musical theatre, respectively – can also be used as weapons against the state. No guns, no bombs, some well-placed Mary Poppins will do it.

Ultimately, the play suggests, what matters is solidarity. That we’ll fight for each other’s right to be British, and to define Britishness, even if they don’t look like us, or we don’t agree with what they say, or they have an unaccountable love of the Spice Girls.

People have asked me if I could imagine this dystopia coming to pass. I think it already has. Not in a formalised, state-defined way, perhaps (although we’re getting there). But experientially, a lot of people for whom this country is – for better and worse – home, are made to feel like foreigners every day.

‘Octopus’ was performed at Assembly George Square at Edinburgh Festival 2016.

Photos by CJM Booth