Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
A fascinating conundrum lies at the heart of Iman Qureshi’s The Funeral Director. How far should people allow their chosen religion to dictate their actions… particularly when that religion instructs them to go against anti-discrimination laws?
Ayesha (Aryana Ramkhalwon) and her husband, Zeyd (Assad Zaman) are the Pakistani proprietors of a Muslim funeral parlour in the north of England. The business has been inherited from Ayesha’s mother and the young couple are struggling to keep the place solvent, whilst putting their personal ambitions on the back burner. Their five year marriage is clearly struggling, something that Zeyd tries to overcome with a disastrous choice of a present for his wife’s birthday.
But the normal order of business is rudely disputed when a distraught young man, Tom (Edward Stone), calls to the parlour, looking to arrange the burial of his recently deceased Muslim boyfriend. Ayesha and Zeyd feel they have to turn him away, since homosexuality is expressly forbidden by their religion. To go along with Tom’s wishes will doubtless be badly received by the Pakistani community which they serve – and would likely affect their already struggling business. Soon after, Ayesha reconnects with childhood friend, Janie (Francesca Zoutewelle), a barrister who has returned from London to care for her invalid mother. It’s clear from the outset Ayesha and Janie have some unfinished business – and, just to make things even more tricky, Janie’s new occupation may come in very useful when Tom decides to sue the funeral parlour for sexual orientation discrimination.
This is a nicely nuanced piece that inevitably recalls the recent case of the Northern Irish bakers who refused to create a cake bearing a pro-gay message – and, just as in that situation, the arguments for and against their decision are incredibly complicated. What’s particularly impressive about this play is that it steadfastly refuses to opt for straightforward answers. It soon becomes apparent that Ayesha’s original opposition to Tom’s request is not for the obvious reasons. I also love the fact Qureshi refuses to turn Zeyd into a stereotype: he’s kind, supportive and ready to try anything to put matters right.
There are some nice performances here and a genuinely moving conclusion, where Ayesha finally gains the courage to confront the obstacle that has been afflicting her marriage for so long. This is a play that will have you discussing its central premise for hours after you’ve left the theatre.