Talking Offside with Sabrina Mahfouz
This week we're talking to ultra-talented and prolific poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz, co-writer of Offside, the play in which four women across the centuries live, breathe and play football.
We chatted about how Offside happened and what it means to be 'manly'. Following a hit tour of the UK earlier this year the play is heading to the Edinburgh festival and showing at the Pleasance Theatre throughout August – tickets are on sale now.
We were very lucky to have Sabrina squeeze us in between the multiple projects, writing, editing, thinking and general life-living she does, so a huge thank you to her.
What's your personal relationship to sport – do you consider yourself to have one? Has this changed since writing the play?
I feel guilty to admit I have always been quite averse to sport - both as a participator and spectator! I think the element of competitiveness always turned me off, I'm a bit averse to racing against anyone, metaphorically or literally! However, I always admired the passion and purpose in those who did love it and particularly the dedication and sacrifice of women athletes. I also always had a respect for the sociopolitical possibilities and indicators of sport and that has grown hugely since working on Offside.
When writing Offside, were you coming from a love for the game or did you recognise something deeper in the industry that you wanted to speak about?
I wanted to speak primarily about how football had been hand in hand with women's struggle for equality for hundreds of years. How women's teams used it to further their suffrage cause in the 1800-1900s and how even now, space and platforming for women's football highlights how women still face so many barriers and challenges in modern society. Hollie McNish, the co-writer, has a deep love of both playing and watching the sport, as do the rest of the creative team, so it was great to have that mix in there.
How long has the play been in the works?
The idea came from Caroline Bryant, the Artistic Director of Futures Theatre Company. I'd worked with them on other projects and then I asked Hollie to come in as I'd worked with her on poetry projects before and love her writing and her perspectives. Plus I knew she loved football! This all started about three years ago and from there we went through many processes of research and development – trying out different ways of presenting the stories and materials.
Was it quite clear to you early on that Carrie Boustead and Lily Parr would be the focus of the play?
Carrie (who we then discovered was actually Emma Clarke!) and Lily were always the top candidates for our historical focus, but it took a long time to find the right balance with the contemporary characters.
Looking at football through a theatrical lens and using the arts can throw up unexpected ways of understanding sport – and inversely the art form. It's also something I think about with female athletes; they often do play a different game to men which can be more creative and considered, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable.
I think that's a great point and it comes across whenever a writer makes a play about women, in my opinion. As their 'difference' in how they approach sports, business, creativity, life isn't something that need be hidden, rather it just needs to be elevated to occupy the same dominant position as the ways men have traditionally approached all these areas.
Women's football is clawing long-deserved coverage and gaining industry momentum since the 1921 FA ban. Was there something that you and Hollie had in mind that you wanted the audience to take from watching the play?
Yes definitely. We were particularly shocked at prevailing attitudes towards women in football though. In tennis for example, women and men get paid far more equally and occupy arguably equal platforms of exposure. We really want people to think about why they consider any sport to be 'manly' and what this therefore says about what it is to be 'manly' – strong? Fast? Nimble? These are things found across genders in hugely differing levels and it seems bizarre to associate any of them with one gender in particular.
What are you working on at the moment?
Always around 15 projects in varying stages of development, as that is the freelancing financial reality for a writer at my stage of career! They are all very exciting though and I'm so privileged to be working with such amazing people. In particular looking forward to an opera based on Nawal El Saadawi's book Woman at Point Zero that I'm writing for the composer Bushra El Turk and the Royal Opera House for 2018.