Q+A with Playwright Emteaz Hussain and author Alex Wheatle on the UK tour of Crongton Knights.
Crongton Knights was published in 2016, won the Guardian Children Fiction’s Prize that same year, was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize the following year and has become ever more relevant in the time since.
“The story is about people coming together and how we are stronger together than apart, that’s the message,” said Crongton Knights author Alex Wheatle.
The book has now been adapted by playwright Emteaz Hussain and is being brought to the stage by York-based Pilot Theatre for a national tour.
The production, which tours from February to May is being created by Pilot alongside York Theatre Royal, Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Derby Theatre.
Pilot, highly regarded for the work it creates on stages for younger adult audiences, is led by artistic director Esther Richardson who will co-direct Crongton Knights with Artistic Director of Strictly Arts Theatre Company Corey Campbell.
Crongton Knights adapter Emteaz Hussain has worked with the company previously, writing the script for the national tour of Outsiders.
She said: “When Esther asked if I would consider adapting it off I went and read it and loved it.
“Having worked with Esther before I thought ‘I can see why she thinks I can do this’. I’m glad she had faith in me to do it because I just loved the way Alex had written this world of Crongton. Even though it’s fictional, I really related to it because it’s multicultural in an intelligent and intricate way.”
Wheatle’s novel tells the story of McKay, who lives on the South Crongton estate. Since his mum died his dad has been working all hours to keep the bailiffs from the door and his older brother is always out on the streets, tempting trouble. One night he heads out on a heroic mission to retrieve a girl’s mobile phone and finds himself facing crazed ex-boyfriends, hood rats on a power trip and violent gangsters.
Hussain knew quite quickly how she wanted to write the story.
She said: “I was struck by the journey and the quest. Quite instinctively I thought that was what the play needed to be about. The book isn’t only about the quest and at no point does a character say ‘we’re going on a quest’, but that is what happens.
“What’s great is that on the quest they learn so much about themselves and each other. The message is that you are not alone as young people because you have each other. You have to back each other up because out there you are on your own if you don’t stand together, that’s what they learn on their journey.”
As minorities, both the author of the original novel Wheatle and adapter Hussain believe there is a need for stories featuring diverse characters on our stages, in books, in the stories we tell.
Hussain said: “It’s a black writer, an Asian adapter, a multicultural cast, a director in Esther who has done a lot of work in inner cities and multicultural communities; as a creative team we are really imbued with diversity.
“Theatre can be thought of as a middle class, white, middle aged arena. I hope because of the company we have, because of Alex and because of the story itself we will attract a diverse audience. I think theatres have some work to do to bring in a younger and more multicultural audience, but there are artists and plays like this that are chipping away and trying to appeal to that audience, to bring young people in.
“We’ve got to just keep at it and keep telling these stories.”
How did you come to adapt the novel?
Esther (Richardson, Pilot artistic director) asked me to read it and would I consider adapting it, so off I went and read it and I loved it. Having worked with Esther before I thought ‘I can see why she thinks I can do this’. I’m glad she had faith in me to do it because I just loved the way Alex had written this world of Crongton. Even though it’s fictional, I really related to it because it’s multicultural in an intelligent and intricate way. It’s about white working class people, black people, Asian people, all different people living in a city together and that’s something I can relate to and something I don’t see written so well very often. I thought ‘this is great, I really want to get under the skin of this.
How do you go about adapting the novel?
It takes drafts and work. It’s a big and award winning book, but the thing I was really struck and compelled by was the moment they go on a quest and a journey, they try to help each other and I thought that’s such a great message. I was always struck by the journey and the quest. That for me, quite instinctively is what I thought the play needed to be. The book isn’t just about the quest, it’s never named that in the book, no one says ‘oh, we’re going on a quest’ and actually there’s a lot about McKay, the main character and his life and perspective before they go on the quest. I wanted to show, as Alex has shown in the book that you are not alone as young people because you have each other. You have to back each other up because out there you’re on your own, that’s what they learn on the quest.
You’ve put your own stamp on it haven’t you?
Yes, I’ve made one character in the book a girl and I’ve shifted the perspective a little. In the book it’s about McKay trying to help a girl called Venetia and I’ve shifted the perspective so there’s more of her on the stage than there is in the book. Telling the girls’ stories a little more is important to me. I think in some ways that’s what Esther wanted me to do, bring a female perspective. You already have Alex’s brilliant voice and I add my perspective to that.
The multiculturalism in the story is important, isn’t it?
The message at the heart of the story is that we are more similar than different. We need each other and need to find ways to overcome our differences and be there for each other because if we don’t were in big trouble. That’s the massive message in terms of a multicultural story that is important, if we don’t overcome differences and be there for each other than society is incredibly divisive and we have, lo and behold Brexit. Sorry, that’s my political persuasion coming out.
What’s it like to adapt something that already exists?
I think a lot about my relationship to the book in terms of being an adapter, the idea of the story being filtered through me as a writer. First of all, I have to like the book myself, I can’t just take on board what everyone else thinks about it. Not only do I like it, I have a lot of respect for the book and in particular Alex’s lyricism. His big heartedness, there’s a big beating heart in that book and I love that. In terms of how to adapt a book that everybody loves, well I feel the same, you know, I love it too. That’s why I’m doing it, I’m with all those young readers who love it, even though I’m not young, I’m as passionate about the story as they are. For me, that’s how I feel, if I wasn’t I don’t know how I could do it.
You’ve brought beatboxing into the story too?
We’re very lucky to have Conrad (Murray, who leads the BAC Beatboxing Academy), who is a big deal and a great, award winning beatboxer. I met him when we workshopped the script at the National and he absolutely loved the story. I’m a poet and a big fan of rhythms so even though I’m not a beatboxer, I can see how the rhythms affect the story. It’s really exciting.
It’s an impressive team.
It’s great to be surrounded by passionate people, we all feel really passionate about working class, multicultural stories that’s what gets us. And it’s great when its written that well and we’re all behind it.
It has a very diverse team too?
It’s a black writer, an Asian adapter, a multicultural cast, a director in Esther who has done a lot of work in inner cities and multicultural communities; as a creative team we are really imbued with diversity. Theatre can be thought of as a middle class, white, middle aged arena. I hope because of the company we have, because of Alex and because of the story itself we will attract a diverse audience. I think theatres have some work to do to bring in a younger and more multicultural audience, but there are artists and plays like this that are chipping away and trying to appeal to that audience, to bring young people in. We’ve got to just keep at it and keep telling these stories.
How is the experience of working with Pilot?
I think they’re great. I’ve got two experiences two different artistic directors and I’ve enjoyed both. I have a good relationship with Esther and I love the team she’s assembled. I think this whole project is well pitched with me adapting Alex’s story.
How are you feeling about the stage version of your story?
I’m feeling excited to see my baby be taken up by someone else. Emteaz (Hussain, adapter) is putting something else into it and giving the story a new life.
Does it feel strange?
It feels like someone has found an entrance into your brain and discovered how it works, that’s a lot of fun. It’s also really interesting to see someone else’s interpretation of your own work and story. It was really something to be around the reading table to see people performing and bringing to life your work.
How did it come about?
It was a while ago now, Esther (Richardson, Pilot Theatre artistic director) came to me and said she loved the book. She said she really enjoyed how diverse it was and she loved the approach I had taken. The story itself was inspired by having parties for my kids and we lived in a really diverse area, so their friends were white, Iraqi, Pakistani; nobody cared what God anybody prayed to. They were just friends, that was all that mattered to them and that was the core of the story I wrote, this bond between this group of young people.
What was it like working with Emteaz?
When we first met I sat down with her and said ‘just make of it what you will’. I thought it would be kind of boring if there was a word-for-word telling of what I’d written on stage. Emteaz came up with some really interesting ideas, like making a character called Boy From the Hills a female character called Bush Girl. I thought the idea of introducing beatboxing to the story was a great idea. The skeleton of the story has stayed in place, but everyone involved has come up with some great new ideas and I salute them.
How would you describe the story you wrote?
It’s a simple quest story. It’s a King Arthur story with a group of friends who set out to conquer a challenge. Their quest is to retrieve a phone one of them needs to get back and on their quest they meet various dangers. They have to get to where they are going, get the phone and get back home again. It’s an absolute classic story, oh they also have to get home while there is a riot going on.
Where do you get your inspiration?
My writing always springs from my life. As a teenager living in Brixton I met some real characters and I had a lot of friends had some difficult times and things they had to conquer. I’ve been visited by bailiffs and had to cope with bereavement, like a lot of friends. My writing is informed by those life experiences.
What about your writing experience?
When I first picked up a pen I wrote poetry and I tried being a reggae artist. Whatever I’ve been doing, I’ve always just tried to express that love is more powerful than hate. That’s what Crongton Knights is about, that people can come together and that’s powerful, especially if there is something they have come together to fight against. We are stronger together than apart, that’s the message. There is so much division these days and politicians emphasise that division rather than looking at what brings us together, which is why I want to tell the stories that I write.
What do you think of the stage version?
When I was at the read through I was falling off my chair. I found it moving and funny, which is a great thing that you get with a stage version where the characters are there in front of you. It’s great.
By Nick Ahad, writer and broadcaster.