Madani Younis on what inspires him

The Observer asked our Artistic Director Madani Younis – along with the heads of the Serpentine, Secret Cinema, Glasgow International, the Young Vic and others – how he finds fresh talent and new ideas. You can read the article in full here, or read Madani’s response below.

This will probably come as a big surprise, but I’m a huge fan of mixed martial arts, otherwise known as cage fighting, which is an unfortunate expression. The female fighters in mixed martial arts are the most exciting part of the sport. I watched boxing as a kid and found it a bit brutal, but reading Ernest Hemingway made me appreciate it and now mixed martial arts, in a very different way. He writes about it as a balletic art. For him, it’s about the human condition: you enter the ring and you take your destiny, your dreams, with you. Last year, I directed a boxing play entitled The Royale, about Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion of the world. I’ve waited my whole career to direct a sports play. So, yes, I love mixed martial arts and I love the app.

Nicholas Pinnock in The Royale, March 2015, Bush Theatre | Production photograph by Helen Murray

Nicholas Pinnock in The Royale, March 2015, Bush Theatre | Production photograph by Helen Murray

N.B. We’re remounting Madani’s 2015 production of The Royale in November at The Tabernacle. You can find out more and book tickets here.

My mother has been a huge influence on me. She introduced me to the writers who really inspired me early on, people like James Baldwin, Derek Walcott, Ralph Ellison, Bell Hooks. When I read Derek Walcott’s play Dream on Monkey Mountain, aged 16, it just blew my mind. In the same way, reading Baldwin writing about Harlem in the 60s, there was a resonance: I thought, yes, I know what that feels like.

I always loved words. I think it was only when I was about 17 that I really fell in love with theatre: I went to the Old Red Lion in Islington, north London, and saw a play about the Troubles in Northern Ireland by Seamus Finnegan. That was the moment. I felt that that artistic communion couldn’t be replicated in any other medium.

These days, going to a monthly spoken-word night at the Forge in Camden, called Out-Spoken, makes me feel like I did when I was 17. I’ve seen some amazing artists there and there’s no censorship, no notes, no separation between me and the artist on stage – just words from their mouth to your ears, unadulterated. It’s a beautiful kind of communion. Out-Spoken is run by the artist Anthony Anaxagorou and the venue only seats about 100-120 people, but it’s always a great mix of people – City types, younger men and women.


A picture from an Out-Spoken event

I’m also a huge fan of the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. It’s a beautifully conceived building. For me, it holds up against any of our other great museums and galleries in the city; I always take visitors there. It’s a reminder of a great lineage of men and women and the impact they’ve had on both our city and our sense of being as a country.

There’s a West Indian restaurant/takeaway in Uxbridge Road called Ochi that I love because it’s been there probably since the 60s/70s and it’s an absolute staple of the community in Shepherd’s Bush. Because of the music venues in the area, such as the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, now known as the O2, Ochi has this really inspiring wall of fame, with shots of people that have been there to eat, like Bob Marley, Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill. The food is amazing and it’s a beautiful place to hang out; you never know who you are going to meet or what you’re going to end up talking about. The other place I like is Bush Hall Dining Rooms, an independent restaurant in Uxbridge Road. The food is really great and it has a cool vibe.

The questions I always ask about new ideas are: what is it that this piece is trying to reveal about the world? And: from what vantage point are they trying to do that? More specifically, as a new writing theatre in Shepherd’s Bush, one of London’s most diverse areas, I always ask: how does this speak to London today? In a way I’m trying to reveal – not in a touristy way – what this moment means in our cultural history, however uncomfortable or inspiring. If Charles Dickens were alive now, this version of London would be amazing to him.

My favourite websites Media Diversified gives me another version of the news. It’s a response to the lack of black and minority ethnic journalists writing in our mainstream papers and it covers news, culture, sport and comment. It’s great seeing young journalists quickly develop their voice in that space. I’ve also really been taken by Vice News in the two years since it launched, particularly its global perspective and the level of investigative journalism.

Unmissable TV Daredevil on Netflix. It’s based on a Marvel comic book and the writing is really muscular. The other one is House of Cards; my wife and I are addicted to it. What an amazing insight into what politics really is all about. IC

This is an extract from an article by Imogen Carter and Kathryn Bromwich published in The Observer on Sunday 28 August 2016. You can read the article in its entirety here.