During the month of November every year, I attend out of love and duty, what I feel is one of the finest fringe theatre festivals in the UK. As a staunch supporter of local arts, I have always tried to contribute however I can in ensuring these traditions continue in our urban spaces. This festival is called The Season of Bangla Drama, spearheaded by a good friend of mine and also a fellow theatre lover Kazi Ruksana, whom without, this festival would collapse. She, with the help of the Tower Hamlets Council and all the wonderful festival volunteers and venues, leads this annual celebration from inception to delivery – and it has gone from strength to strength every year.
The festival offers a diverse range of plays with Bengali sensibilities from the UK, Bangladesh and West Bengal. It aims to explore how Bengali culture and heritage can be exported across continents and reinterpreted using a mixture of innovation and tradition to inspire a new generation and develop new audiences. The festival is also a great platform for emerging writers, directors and performers to showcase their talents. . I am asked every year to review the plays, which is both a pleasure and challenge, especially for the really good ones where I’m often lost for word and just want to say ‘incredible’!
The Planet of the Grapes and Attack of the Green Chillies
War is often a complex game of decision making, corruption, duty, and insatiable greed and knee jerk reactions. And often the greatest wars in history, have been bloody ones that have ripped apart nations or rebuilt ones in ways the civilians had never expected, and often wanted. To step inside the underbelly of the concept of war itself and re-construct it is what actor, artist and writer Musalman Qualam did with his powerful piece ‘The Planet of the Grapes and Attach of the Green Chillies’.
The first of the two deliveries of this play took place on Tuesday 25th November 2014 at the wonderful Space Theatre, a stone’s throw away from Canary Wharf, London.
A simply lit stage, with two hand-painted textile panels (by Qualam) and some woven props commissioned and made in Bangladesh (a gramophone, telephone and television) set the scene.
Dressed in military green and with all the trimmings and a big trunk, Qualam entered and unfolded a whole non exitent cast to us simply through a change of of voice, and accent.
The play was a surreal but contemporary take on the themes from George Orwell‘s Animal Farm, by using fruit and vegetables to portray hierarchy and the passion for change. Our programme booklet described it as an ‘alternative comical look at the Grape War on the Western Front, examines issues of conflict by using the metaphor of the vines and the many colours of their varied produce. From black to white, with varied attire, languages and accents, the grapes represent different cultures, countries and races. Drawing from his British Bangladeshi, Muslim upbringing Musalman undertakes a humorous journey which encounters beauty and the power of human nature’.
A weighty and incredibly promising description. I was excited and could see this becoming a play that would really stand on its own in the festival. Sadly, though, I grew to becoming quite underwhelmed towards the second half of this piece.
Qualam’s incredible voice shifting, ability to deliver many characters, accents, behavioural nuances and personas was applaudable. He is an incredibly talented actor and story teller. We were giggling at his versions of communities of people symbolised through nurseries and vegetables and flowers… we shared his frustration as he expressed the struggles faced by those who invade and those who get invaded… we sighed at his poetic capturing of injustice and the imbalance in our world today.
Musalman carried the whole narrative from inception to delivery in a way I have not seen many do. There was a strength and conviction in his delivery and I loved the thought and depth of every utterance. His passion on the subject matter, and research and hours of memorising the often loaded dialogue left me in awe. It was clear to see just how much work, hours of rehearsal and dedication had gone into this.
But it was the sheer expanse of what he was covering that left many of us in the audience confused or struggling to stay connected throughout. And it almost went on for an hour too long.
My major criticisms are that the piece was trying to do too much in too little time and in the attempt to convey so many things, it lost it’s way and ability to engage in the way it did with the audience in the first half. I felt there lacked a sense of second option/directorship.
It seemed to have been written, acted, directed, and finished all by Qualam, and not enough external opinion and influence…. this may not have been the case, but what was projected felt more like an insular, personal and incredibly heavy performance. To suggest changes would be tough as I love so much of it in parts, but together, I felt there was too much going on. If Qualam picked a couple of scenes and explored them further, I feel that would have been far more effective in communicating some of the key messages he was attempting to.
Aside this, it was a powerful piece which was delivered with a rare passion and attention to detail that is an honour to see in theatre today.
© 2014 Shroomantics ~ Rahima Begum
- Script Writer, Actor, Director, Producer: Musalman Qualam
- Executive Director: Ejel Khan
www.musalman.me.uk is a freelance creative industries related company fronted by an individual, with the stage name Musalman Qualam. His extensive education incorporates a BA Hons degree in Design and the production of a collection of Islamic Geometric hand felted, hand painted, soft Mario Wool Scarves. His MA involved research into ‘Digital Bangladesh‘ and he is now planning to embark on a PhD study in Saudi Arabia, beginning in 2018. With wide-ranging interests and cultural output, his performing arts pieces involve social commentary as well as Muslim humour.