Preview: Hobson’s Choice

It's been moved into Manchester’s Northern Quarter and now centres on an Asian immigrant family in the textile industry, but the central message of sticking it to the man remains in this classic play

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Penned by Harold Brighouse in 1915, Hobson’s Choice is a theatrical classic. Examining patriarchy through the titular Hobson, the play presents several serious points but avoids becoming trite and dogmatic by employing biting humour. It’s a superbly balanced piece of theatre.

Being charged with reworking such a standard would presumably be a minefield for any contemporary writer. Not so, says renowned playwright Tanika Gupta, who was initially handed the task back in 2003.

“David Lan was running the Young Vic in London at the time and he approached me with the idea – and I just did it! It’s such a brilliant comedy, plus the characters and story are already there so half the job is done really. But there are certainly ways you can make it your own.”

The Brighouse original was set in 1880’s Salford. Gupta’s new version, revamped for the Royal Exchange, is now transposed a few miles, and forward 100 years, to Manchester’s Northern Quarter during its time as a garment manufacturing mecca. And the protagonist is no longer Englishman Henry Horatio Hobson but rather Hari Hobson, an immigrant who fled from Africa.

“I’ve set the play within the Ugandan Asian community, which came over to Britain after Idi Amin rose to power in Uganda during 1972 and expelled the Asian immigrants,” Gupta explains. “A lot of those Asians settled in places like Leicester and Manchester and built businesses from virtually nothing. It’s a fascinating piece of history that is rarely examined.”

The shoemaking of the original piece would prove factually troublesome for a family from India as, owing to the caste system, the only Indians historically permitted to work with “unclean” cowhide have been the “untouchable” underclass. Instead Hari and his offspring work in tailoring, a trade described by Gupta as “typical for Asian immigrants to Manchester.”

What does remain true to the original is the location. “The setting is almost the same, just shifted slightly to what’s now referred to as the Northern Quarter. This is a very northern play so I didn’t want to take this newest version far,” Gupta says. “Plus, Sarah Frankcom, artistic director at the Royal Exchange, really wanted to examine the Asian community in that particular area in terms of the sweatshops and other places immigrants found work in. Thirty years ago the Northern Quarter was far from the chi-chi place it is now.”

And, of course, taking pot-shots at the patriarchy remains the dominant narrative in London-born Gupta’s take on Hobson’s Choice. Hari’s eldest daughter Durga is the fiery trailblazer to this end, determined to emerge from under her father’s control, beat her own path in life and, according to Gupta, faithfully represent a modern, ever stronger feminism. “I wanted her to be a woman who is actually coming out and demanding things rather than just putting up with what she’s given. When Durga’s father tells her she’s too old to get married and she should run his shop she just absolutely goes against everything he says.

“Durga is a woman who pushes her own agenda, like Maggie in the original, and it was fantastic to write a strong female character who defiantly offers a finger up to the patriarchy.”

Hobson’s Choice, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 31 May to 6 July

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