Yasmin Sidhwa creates theatre with a mission

Photographer: David Fisher

“We’ve become so PC that people won’t talk and then when they are given half a chance it’s bubbling under the surface”.

Castaways – the new thought-provoking theatre play written by the award-winning playwright Atiha Sen Gupta is now coming to its end after having been on a National tour since May. It follows the relationship between three teenagers who are born on the same day and in the same town but with completely different backgrounds. The play raises serious topics like extremism, tribal loyalties and the death of a loved one.

It’s the second part in a trilogy made by the theatre Company Mandala which explores the themes; Place, Identity and Belonging. It’s been researched through creative workshops around the country made up of young people in schools and colleges by exploring their sense of belonging to the communities they’ve grown up in.

The first part of the trilogy called Night Light looked at what makes young people want to belong in the UK but can’t. It explored young asylum seekers who often come here at the age of 11 and 12 and are then at 18 deported back to their country of birth with perhaps no family left and no sense of belonging. “I direct the plays that I want to see on stage. They are stories that I think aren’t told they’re about people that are often not listened to or heard Yasmin Sidhwa says. “I want to bring those stories to the mainstream but also to places where those people whose stories it is can also see it”.

Being of mixed-race herself with a father from India and a mother of English heritage Yasmin thinks they are important topics to explore. Growing up in Frinton-on-Sea she says she didn’t always felt like she fit in because it was very mono-cultured and quite affluent.

“I don’t know that I would ever go back and live in Frinton but it’s formed me and that’s something that’s good”.

As a child she loved going to the Mercury theatre in Colchester and would visit the summer theatre in Frinton-on-sea. With a company based in Oxford, Yasmin has never before brought a play to Essex or performed here as an actor but says it feels good to be back. “I’m actually looking around at the university going it’s actually really pretty diverse which I hadn’t expected because obviously my memories of this county are it was very white so it’s really good to see”.

She says the play is particularly relevant now because of what’s happening in Britain with Brexit and the growing issue of Islamophobia.

“I’m not a Muslim but I feel like if there was ever a time where people are being scapegoated at the moment it’s to do with Islam and it’s to do with culture”.

Yasmin created the Mandala Theatre Company four years ago after having worked as an actor for a long time. She wanted to create a company that would focus on social justice and at the same time be entertaining and of a high standard. The play visits colleges, universities and schools all around the country and after each show the cast and crew have a panel with local politicians, councillors and young people where they discuss the topics and issues being raised. “Things in the play really need talking about and in every city and town we go to we always have a mandala Debate and it’ll be happening here at the Lakeside with local panellists”.

Yasmin says it was particularly interesting in Bath College because of the almost all-white audience. She says she was pleased that one young man was brave enough to say that he thought he was going to hate it because he considered himself a patriot but admitted that it actually made him think. Other people in the room where not as impressed by what he had to say but Yasmin says it’s important that we have these kinds of discussions.

“We’ve become so PC that people won’t talk and then when they given half a chance it’s bubbling under the surface” she says.

Jonathan Mark Green an 18-year-old drama student who saw the play at the Lakeside Theatre took part in the panel discussion after the show. He says he always looks to learn and said the topics the play explored such as the need to belong and the danger that comes of it was something that fascinated him. “I really felt like that it could be an interesting experience to not only go and see but then to talk about outside of the show and spread the message on and I shall definitely intend to do that” he says.

Yasmin Ahsanulla who played the part of a Muslim girl called Asha is originally from Finland and says the play made her think about her own sense of belonging to the place where she grew up. Being of Asian heritage herself and growing up in small town made up of almost entirety white people she says she hadn’t really thought about it before. “I think doing this has made me really think about it in a different way because I never used to think about it. It was just something that was a normal that I grew up in an entirely white community”.

Actor Jonathan Clarke-Hesson who plays the part of Sam says the issues the play raises is what drew him into doing the play and think’s it’s a great idea to have a panel discussion after each show.

“People come with different kind of knowledge they come with different experience and they might have gotten something different from the play that other people haven’t so it’s good to hear what they think” Jonathan says.

Andy Greaves who plays the last “triplet” named Kieran thinks it doesn’t really matter what people take away from the show as long as it makes them think. “There are so many plays people go to see and they go home or go to the pub and have a drink or just go sleep so I think its important just to take anything away and think yeah that’s really hit me” he says.

The tour is almost over and has its next and last stop in Canterbury at the Gulbenkian Theatre on November the 1st. The director Yasmin Sidhwa is now excited to see the play at the Lakeside Theatre at Essex University in hopes that it will have a resonance here.

“I think to me if this reaches the people that I wanted to reach it will be almost like actually I am accepted here now and I do belong whereas for a long time I think I felt I didn’t”.




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