London is always bursting at the seams with exciting events. But there is one annual fringe theatre festival that is close to my heart – A Season of Bangla Drama. This is now in its thirteenth year and is running from the 1st till the 29th of November 2015; bringing a programme of the best new talent in theatre, dance & music to London’s East End.
The organisers have asked me to review and blog about this year’s plays. And as with every year, it’s an absolute honour for me to engage with a festival I would encourage everyone to attend. It’s a month of discovering emotions within you that you may have never felt before, and watching the stage come alive with colour, powerful delivery, rhythm, and storytelling that continues to enrich our community.
The opening night at the Brady Arts Centre was an anticipated one. Sold out, and the air heavy with excitement. It was a treat as the festival opened with not one, but two productions. ‘Say What?’, by Arts Without Borders and ‘The Altab Ali Story’ by the Swadhinata Trust.
The Altab Ali Story is written by Julie Begum and directed by Mukul Ahmed.
This heart-breaking story about the death of Altab Ali oscillates between a village in Sylhet, Bangladesh and a flat in East London and dramatizes the historic moment in 1978 when his mother is given the devastating news. The airmail letters to his family back home with descriptions of life in a foreign land are keenly anticipated but everything changes with the arrival of an ominous envelope from one of Ali’s friends. This senseless murder is the catalyst for a mass anti-racist movement from the Bengali community; the first ever seen in Britain, culminating in a demonstration of 10,000 people marching to Downing Street via Hyde Park with his coffin. Though airmail letters are no longer a primary means of communication, the anger conveyed ‘par avion’, and the impact of this senseless murder live on, both for his family and the community at large.
It’s not often I find myself unable to control my tears in a play. This performance left my partner and I, and many in the audience, sniffling and wiping our tears. They say the best theatre is when it’s able to make you laugh and cry all at once. This play was a marriage of just that.
The stage was divided into two and the attention to detail, choice of props, music, lighting and stage movement was fantastic. The atmosphere was set perfectly with the birds tweeting and the villager’s daily joys and complaints. And simultaneously, the urban space of London and the energy it had was executed with great detail. I really enjoyed the choices of bangla songs, and the robust nature in which they were sung, really bringing the mood of the play together as it developed. Like the set, the actors had clearly spent a lot of time researching their roles and the personalities that needed to be delivered. The relationship between the postman and the villagers was great to watch. And what a voice! A great singer too! The lightness of the village musings was echoed very well when our focus moved to the friendship between Altab and his friend in their small cramped flat where they shared their dreams and struggles.
This joy was very quickly replaced with loss and anguish after Altab’s death. The reaction of the mother’s pain at receiving the letter was painful to watch, but it was Altab’s friend’s loss I felt extremely moved by.
This piece was not only very successful in capturing the essence of the story of Altab’s death and the climate of racism, but most importantly, it was an ode to the personal and private life of Altab, his loved ones, and the loss that they had endured. A story, amongst the demonstrations and newspaper coverage, often goes unheard. So I congratulate the writer and director for bringing us a new perspective to this pivotal story.
My only real gripe would be that I wish it was longer and more time was spent on exhibiting the relationship between Altab and his friend and also his life in London. But aside that, a commendable production I feel honoured to have seen.
© 2015 Shroomantics ~ Rahima Begum