Prasanna Puwanarajah

On directing the National Youth Theatre’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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The walk from Holloway Road tube station to the National Youth Theatre building in north London hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years. I know that because I first did that walk in 1999 to audition.

First you go under a railway bridge, which I think is part of the London Overground. Then you walk past some Peabody buildings on the left and a converted art deco pub on the right, evocatively called the Coronet. Roads peel off to Camden and Seven Sisters: hair-raising one-way affairs the width of motorways that I found alarming then and find alarming now. (The Holloway Road is a noted danger spot for pedestrians.) With independent carpet shops and wholesalers up one side and high street favourites on the other it’s a street that wears its dichotomy down its central reservation.

Finally you pass a butterscotch Odeon with its prow addressing the traffic, and with a barber shop tucked underneath where you can get a cut for £5 if you ask for Luka. Just beyond is a frontage of houses with red doors, and the National Youth Theatre HQ.

In 1999 I’d never walked that far in one stretch in my life. At that time the building in its current form was about five years old. The exterior is the shell of a Victorian industrial building, beautiful and solid. I went in round the side, having buzzed through two doors.

Up a metal staircase that rises up the middle of the building I walked past posters of Coriolanus and Troilus and Cressida, and newer posters of late 1990s productions that I stopped to take in, thinking that this was all too much and probably not for me. Back then I used to go through theatre programmes looking for the Asian faces – surprised and excitedly unsettled on the rare occasions when I found one – and so auditioning for a theatre company felt like a silly thing to be doing, but I was heading to medical school and very much in the market for silly things to offset the seriousness of that.

My sense that I was in the wrong place was entirely cemented by a conversation with another pleasant auditionee who had that same morning discovered that he’d been accepted to RADA: the land of milk and honey. So I went in to do my audition with an air of “ah, well” that looking back was probably no bad thing. Um, no: I didn’t have a song. I tried one but got two lines in and the man auditioning me told me to sit down. And yes: I really was just here because it sounded like an amazing thing to do and as someone new to theatre and plays I was curious and naive but didn’t want to be an actor.

Akshay Sharan and Alice Harding in the National Youth Theatre’s version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, directed by Prasanna Puwanarajah. Photos: Helen Murray

I’m back in that building this week directing a remount of The Reluctant Fundamentalist for a two-week run at Summerhall in the Edinburgh Fringe. This particular play is an adaptation by Stephanie Street of Mohsin Hamid’s Booker Prize-nominated novel that, amongst many things, is about young people and identity fracture, about what happens when the world shakes loose our apparently secure anchors and turns into something alien, suspicious and unknown. It’s a show that has had a couple of lives over the past two years and is sadly becoming more and more revealing as we move together (and separately) in increasingly uncertain times.

Back in the late 1990s the NYT did a big classic revival each summer, and perhaps a devised play about some kind of hot new topic (in 2000 this was internet chatrooms). I’m thrilled that this latter voice is still loud in the company: the voice of young people and their concerns, fears, hopes, and their knowledge about the newer world that they inhabit and that the rest of us are peering in through the high windows of.

The building is older now, as am I. It’s damp and I’m grey; as I walk past the same proud posters today I feel like part of the peeling paint behind them as well as the images themselves. I am so indebted to this company, not only for the work that I do now (although very much that, too) but for the amplification it gives to the voice of young people: through opportunity, through platform, through them.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist runs until 26 August at Summerhall, Edinburgh

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