Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Azma Dar: Noor

By | Published on Sunday 30 October 2022

We are always interested in productions by the wonderful Kali Theatre, and their latest show – opening at Southwark Playhouse shortly – is yet another intriguing work.

‘Noor’ is about Noor Inayat Kahn, who worked as a spy in occupied France during World War II. I’ve always been interested in her story, so it’s brilliant to see it being told on stage. And, of course, I wanted to find out more about the play and the creative team behind the production.  

The writer of ‘Noor’ is award-winning playwright and novelist Azma Dar. I put some questions to her ahead of opening night. 

CM: I suspect a fair number of our readers will have heard of Noor Inayat Kahn, but can you tell us a bit about who she was?
AD: Noor was descended from Indian royalty and was the daughter of Hazrat Inayat Khan, a religious leader who brought Sufism, a form of Islam, to the West. Her mother was Ora Ray Baker, an American revert to Islam.

Noor grew up in France and studied music at the Sorbonne in Paris, then became a children’s author. 

When the war broke out and the Germans invaded Paris, the family fled to London. Although they held strong, pacifist beliefs, Noor and her brother decided to help the war effort, and Noor joined the WAAF and trained to be a wireless operator.

Because of her fluent French, she was selected for F Section, the French branch of the SOE, the secret espionage service set up by Churchill whose aim was to infiltrate German occupied Europe.

Despite receiving mixed training reports, Noor went to work undercover in France and was later awarded the George Cross for her bravery. In recent years she’s been honoured with a blue plaque and a statue in London.

CM: What aspects of her life are addressed in ‘Noor’? What parts of her story are told? 
AD: There was so much to learn about Noor’s life that was interesting. For example, her childhood, growing up in a Sufi household in Paris among musicians and artists, looking after the family after the loss of her father at a very young age, and then travelling and becoming a writer.

Although we refer to some of these things in the play, I chose to focus mainly on her time as an SOE agent, from being recruited and trained to going to work as a secret agent in Paris. 

CM: What themes are explored through the play? 
AD: Loyalty – to your country, family, personal relationships. Truth and lies – Noor hated lying as part of her upbringing and the play explores this theme through most of the characters. Also identity, sacrifice and freedom.

CM: What inspired you to write a play about her? What made you want to write this? 
AD: I read about Noor many years ago and was fascinated and humbled by her achievements and knew that more people needed to hear about this inspiring figure. I was intrigued by her character, and how a quiet, peaceful, but determined and strong willed girl became a daring agent who outwitted the enemy on several occasions and survived longer than many of her peers. 

Although Noor’s story is about sacrifice, loyalty and courage, it also has an exciting, thrillerish quality to it. I wanted to create something that reflected all these aspects of her life – creative, spiritual and adventurous – and the play features elements of poetry, Sufism, and a touch of film noir.

CM: Did you do a lot of research before writing the play?
AD: Yes, there was a lots of research involved! I love history so I really enjoyed all of that.

As well as reading lots of books, I also watched films and documentaries, including some old original WW2 training videos, and visited the Imperial War Museum and the National Archives to look at original documents and photographs. It was revealing to read some of Noor’s own letters to her brother, and I think they really helped me to find her voice. 

After all the research I realised there was too much material and too many characters, so I had to be quite selective in what I used. I also condensed the characters, so some of those in the play are a sort of amalgamation or representation of several different real life people. The play isn’t a strictly accurate retelling of events, but my interpretation, inspired by Noor’s story.

CM: Have you been involved with the ongoing production of the play? Or did you hand over the finished script and step back? 
AD: I have been in to some of the rehearsals, which is always great fun. I’ve been involved in the process because there’s still been some rewriting and cutting to do. I also fill in some of the background for the actors and answer any questions about the script.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the director – and the cast of the play? 
AD: ‘Noor’ is being directed by Poonam Brah, who’s experienced in theatre, film and TV. We’ve been developing the play for almost seven years now, with Poonam giving me dramaturgical notes on all the many versions the script has gone through.

We’ve also workshopped it and had a rehearsed reading. She’s really pushed me in this process which I appreciate because she’s passionate about the play and she’s a perfectionist.

We’re lucky to have a wonderful cast. We worked with Caroline Faber and Ellie Turner in workshops, so we were hoping they’d be able to be in the production. Then we have Annice Boparai as Noor, Laurence Saunders as Buckmaster, and Chris Porter as Kieffer.

They’ve all done lots of their own research and it’s been really exciting to see them in rehearsals. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together.

CM: And can you tell us a bit about you now? Did you always want to work in the arts? How did your career begin? 
AD: I’ve always loved writing and visual arts. I did an Art Foundation course and was planning to go into illustration, but then ended up doing a degree in English and Classics.

The playwriting began when I sent a rushed, last minute play in to the Royal Court for their Young Writers’ Competition after seeing an ad in the newspaper, just because it said they would give everyone feedback and I thought that would be good.

It was only sixteen pages or something, but I got a nice letter inviting me to the Young Writers’ Programme, with Hanif Kureishi as the tutor, so I went along to that, and my “journey” started from there. 

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far? 
AD: That would probably be winning the New Ventures Writing Award for Fiction for my novel ‘The Secret Arts’, because it gave me confidence to carry on writing. As part of the prize I received mentoring from Sophie Hannah, whose work I really admire.

More recently, getting a “traditional” book deal for my novel, because that’s always been a dream, and I think finally seeing ‘Noor’ on stage will also be a highlight. Both are projects that I’ve been working on for a long time.

CM: What hopes and ambitions do you have for the future?
AD: I’d love to write a film and more novels. I’d also like to go back to drawing and maybe illustrate a children’s book.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
AD: I’m also developing a screenplay of my play ‘Vampire In Bradford’, which is a horror comedy set in the Asian community.

‘Noor’ is on at Southwark Playhouse from 4-26 Nov. Head to the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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Photo: Ikin Yum