Viv Hardwick talks to North-East-born director Suba Das about agreeing to stage the 20th anniversary production of iconic comedy-drama East Is East

AS North-East debuts go, Seaton Delaval born young director Suba Das couldn’t have picked anything more difficult than taking on a Newcastle-based stage version of East Is East while preparing for the world premiere of Ravi Shankar’s opera Sukanya.

“Two of our biggest theatres in the UK (Northern Stage and Nottingham Playhouse) are investing in the creation of such an extraordinary production and an opportunity for a huge cast of British Asian actors ,” says Das, who is an associate director at the Leicester Curve venue and recalls getting a call from Northern Stage about directing the play.

“I had been considered the best fit, but initially it didn’t look like it was going to work because I was busy with Ravi Shankar’s Royal Opera House project. Fortunately, rehearsals dates were moved so that I could go straight from Newcastle to London. It’s the joy of being a director and I’m still at the point of my career where it would be foolish to say No to doing things.

“This play in my home town means so much to me and I resigning myself to having a few sleepless nights.”

East Is East by Ayub Khan-Din earned an Olivier Award in 1996 and went on to Bafta glory with a 1999 film adaptation starring Om Puri and Linda Bassett as Zaheed “George” Khan and his white second wife Ella, who run a Salford fish and chip shop. Das acknowledges that the work is the best look at the East Asian/Western culture clash of all time, but disguises a violent darker side behind the comedy that so many remember.

“The (wife-beating) violence is in the script and our production is of that family at that time... but we will be balancing on a knife-edge here. I think that the challenge before us is to be careful about the way these events happen and here I am, the day after International Women’s Day, discussing this subject. So much of my work is incredibly feminist and a piece I’m working on is called The Pink Sari Revolution about 20,000 female vigilantes in North India,” says Das. His adaptation of Amana Fontella Khan’s true life tale of women fighting for equal rights will tour to Northern Stage (Oct 31 to Nov 4), and West Yorkshire Playhouse (Nov 7 to 11).

Moving back to East Is East, the director says: “From my perspective I think that no one condones the violence which is absolutely the clear difference between this and other projects. The reality for us is that we don’t glorify it and it continues to happen in the world and we mustn’t shy away from showing the reality of the world. One of the really interesting things is to present a South Asian man on stage who is violent to women and the complexity now in re-visiting this is the knowledge that, as a young British male Asian director, there is so much stigma regarding Asian identity.

“To be incredibly provocative, we do live in age where there have been outrages committed by British Asian men and I’ve seen the news headlines asking what the problem is regarding South Asian men. I’m not aware, however, of similar outcries involved the Yorkshire Ripper murders or those involving Fred West. There was no ‘What is the problem with white men?’ headlines. I don’t want to do anything that risks perpetuating a stereotype.”

He’s cast National Theatre actor Kammy Darweish as George, who is based on playwright Ayub Khan-Din’s own father, with well-known Corrie actress Vicky Entwistle as the long-suffering and feisty Ella. Das also opted for the five children featured to be played by adult actors.

“I think I’m lucky to be working with two of the most extraordinary actors that I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. I think this is the ideal pair to handle the scenes with sensitivity and intelligence,” says Das, who admits that he still hasn’t decided how much of the wife-beating to show on stage.

“We have five weeks to make these decisions as a team and there will be careful conversations with Vicky because it is fundamental that the woman taking on this role is at the centre of the exploration. But I have very little interest in gratuitous violence,” he says.

The play will have a North-Eastern tone in terms of Das’ life and upbringing and “being a kid in Seaton Delaval... and feeding into what it means to be a young brown boy in a working class community. It was written about Salford in 1971 and I think that in any great art the way you make something universal is to be make it totally specific. The godfather of theatre Peter Brook says that before something can be about everything, it has to be about one thing. I have every confidence that the North-East community is going to understand who these characters are. I think that it is the extraordinary thing about theatre is that it can go from you laughing your head off, at a play where a 12-year-old boy has to be circumcised, to go, ‘Woah... how did we get here?’”

Das is quite happy about adults playing younger roles and opted out of casting six youngsters partly because it made rehearsal time easier and partly due to the production transferring from Newcastle to Nottingham Playhouse. “There are licensing issues involving children in shows plus education issues and chaperones and another raft of issues regarding touring. We also want that level of maturity in the rehearsal room because the play is quite hard-hitting. We were also lucky enough to be working with the casting agents Sooki McShane and Lucy Jenkins, who have the longest list known to man.”

Das is aware that the performances of East Is East is a big deal for his mother and family because it will the first time they will see his work in the region.

“I’m having a big year in terms of shows and it also means that my mum can see my work without having to travel. I’ve been a director for ten years since graduating from Cambridge and blagged my way on to a director training programme and started my career at Stratford East. I became the youngest ever director at the National Theatre and I couldn’t have had a more auspicious start. I also know that plays like East Is East don’t come along very often... and it’s been held onto and loved now for 20 years because it’s a work of genius.”

East Is East runs at Newcastle’s Northern Stage from April 13 to May 13. Box Office: 0191-230-5151 or