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Common ground - Ali Azhar talks ahead of Glory at the Belgrade

Posted on 28 March 2019

Meet Sami – a Syrian refugee facing “fear, aggression and prejudice” as he tries to settle into a new life in the UK. Sami is one of three characters compelled over the ropes and into the wrestling ring in Nick Ahad’s gutsy new play Glory.

For Sami and his fellow wrestlers Dan and Ben, fighting isn’t just confined to Glory’s Gym where they all train – each of these young men has their own demons to wrestle within real-life, using the controlled combat in the ring as a release for feelings pent-up from their day-to-day lives.

Ahead of the show’s arrival in Coventry 10-13 April, actor Ali Azhar told us more about his character and the struggles he faces as an outsider.

Glory

Tell us about your character in Glory.

Sami is an asylum seeker who came to the UK to escape war. He intends to go back one day, but in the meantime he is looking for a gym to train in as he did back at home. He shows a promising talent for wrestling.

How would you describe his struggle in the play?

The first obstacle is the language barrier. Sami’s English is not good enough for him to always be fully understood or to understand what other people are talking about. He also faces the lack of education about the complexity of the Arabic world. In the UK, people’s ideas about the Arabic world often reduce it to the Muslim world, which in itself is complex. All of this leads to fear, aggression and prejudice against him.

He also has to face the atrocities he has lived through. Sami is proud, so he won’t show how any of it is affecting him. One thing he has in common with all other men in the play is that they all have difficulty opening up emotionally, except through violence or banter. They conform to a classic masculinity code that I believe will resonate with audiences.

Glory

Are there any issues regarding ethnicity and/or identity addressed in Glory that resonate with you on a personal level?

I remember being on a bus in South East London the day after the Brexit vote, hearing a man speaking loudly about how his country was suffering from a genocide. According to him, all the white people were disappearing. He was saying things like, “Look, look around you, all these brown people are killing us,” and pointing his finger at other people on the bus.

A huge argument started, and one lady went to the bus driver telling him to stop the bus as someone was being racist. An old Caucasian woman started telling the man that these people are welcome here and that he had forgotten his history, reminding him how the British Empire took over half of the world, stole resources from many countries, and decided for other countries where their borders would be. Another person joined in saying that he was British regardless of his skin colour, and that he was proud to be British because he and his children were born here and that they all contribute to the country.

This group of people who didn’t know each other all gathered together to explain to someone who was driven by fear that he was wrong to fear them; that they were actually all British or that the foreigners were not invading the country, but helping to build it as migrants have always done in any country.

It reminded me of Sami trying to explain to Ben in the play that there is a common ground for them to understand a little bit more of each other. If you only judge people through what you see on TV or movies or from past bad experiences, you will never understand them, and that’s where fear comes from.

When that young man left the bus he got out, turned towards the door and giving everyone a finger said, “I hope you all go to hell!” But what was amazing was the reaction of all the other people on the bus – instead of being angry, they were actually sad that he wasn’t listening to them at all, and that he couldn’t get the idea out of his head that everyone who is not white is a threat.

Glory

Tell us a bit about your own background.

I live in London, but I grew up in Paris.

Do you think more needs to be done to improve diversity on UK stages?

My experience of the UK stage is limited but I do see a bit more openness here in the UK in terms of casting diverse actors from different ethnicities and economic backgrounds. It’s great that the UK has opened up the subject – in France, for instance, it’s not even discussed. However, I think the problem in the UK is that the roles that actors get offered are still often stereotypes of what “society” thinks these characters would be like.

Do you follow wrestling or do you have any memories of or connections with the sport?

I did follow wrestling a bit when I was a teenager, with icons such as Hulk Hogan, Leon White and John Cena.

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British wrestling arguably remains a very male-dominated sport. Do you think female audiences will connect to this show?

What I like about Glory is that it’s not really about wrestling. It’s about the difficulty for men to really connect with each other, rather than just mocking or punching or bantering with each other. It’s about that struggle for men to share what they feel, the unnecessary aggression, normalised racism and how minorities can be mistreated in their everyday life, sometimes without even noticing it. In this play we see men grappling with a lack of purpose, driven by a search for redemption and meaning in their lives, and that’s where I believe female audiences can also connect to the play.

Bonus question – if you were a wrestler, would you be a Babyface or a Heel?

Babyface!

Glory