DRAMATIC ACT: Charithra Chandran (in red top) as Medea


By AMIT ROY

SPURNED BY PEERS, OXFORD’S BAME STUDENTS STAGE DRAMA TO ACCLAIM

ASIAN undergraduates at Oxford have joined forces with their fel­low black students to mount a dramatic act of rebellion that they claim has “never happened before” at the university.

The students have successfully put on a play in which every mem­ber of the cast and production team was from a BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) background.

They say that for far too long, black and Asian students were not even being auditioned because drama was thought to be the exclusive preserve of “white students like Hugh Grant” (currently portray­ing Jeremy Thorpe in the BBC TV drama, A Very English Scandal).

with Joel Stanley as Jason

After challenging the assump­tions of entitlement by white stu­dents from privileged back­grounds, the play they staged to standing ovations last month at the O’Reilly Theatre at Keble Col­lege was Medea, a Greek tragedy written by

Euripides and first per­formed in 431 BC.

Medea, a wife who is consid­ered a barbarian and an outsider, is outraged, betrayed and humili­ated when her husband dumps her for a new lover, Princess Glauce, the daughter of King Cre­on. She kills her rival by gifting her a poisoned cloak and crown, which also causes the death of Creon as he embraces his dying daughter. And in order to inflict the maximum pain on her un­faithful husband Jason, Medea murders their two young sons and even takes away their bodies so as to deny him the solace of giving them a burial.

Two of the outstanding perfor­mances were by Charithra Chan­dran, a PPE student at New Col­lege (ironically, Grant’s old college), as Medea, and Shreya Lakhani, an undergraduate at Balliol reading Sanskrit and Hindi, as the Mes­senger. All the mayhem occurs off stage, and it is left to the Messen­ger to bring news of the murders to Medea. The Messenger – and the audience – watch as a happy smile lights up Medea’s face.

“The challenge was to make this awful, terrible character empa­thetic and somehow find ways I could relate to in order to embody the role in a genuine manner,” ex­plained Chandran.

Shreya Lakhani as the Messenger

She saw some parallels with what can happen when an immi­grant community is marginalised despite having contributed to Brit­ish society for decades. “Medea is ultimately just one tale of what happens when you are disenfran­chised – a very simple tale, but that’s what’s so brilliant about it.”

Lakhani, who gave a near fault­less performance as did members of the Chorus, said: “I absolutely loved the energy – being in a cast full of people of colour was so spe­cial. (This is) not something Ox­ford has ever seen before.

“It is a watershed moment for Oxford as a whole as well as the drama scene.”

Lakhani said drama at Oxford “represents or used to represent Hugh Grant and those traditional white people”.

She continued: “The type of people in this play were not get­ting into Oxford productions – they were not even auditioning.

“It is also proving a point to the majority of the production com­panies in Oxford who are not pre­dominantly BAME. It is telling them, ‘You need to give these peo­ple a chance.’”

The programme features many Asians names – Rishem Khattar and Shivaike Shah as co-produc­ers and Krishan Emmanuel as as­sistant producer. Also listed are Jeevan Ravindran (the voice of Creon); Dhanya Nair (Tutor); Anushka Shah, Olivia Moinuddin and Madhulika Murali (all in the Chorus which did a Bollywood dance); Lorraine Dindi (costumi­ere); Sparshita Dey and Shyam Pa­tel (choreography); Ramani Chan­dramohan (marketing assistant); and Simran Uppal (spoken word).

the Chorus performing a Bollywood dance

“We hope everyone in this pro­duction will carry on doing dra­ma,” was Lakhani’s fervent wish.

There were as many black stu­dents involved, with the greatest credit going to the gifted director, Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, who has broken through to become president of the Oxford University Dramatic Society.

Now in her second year at St John’s College reading music, she confirmed: “Yes, I chose the play. The birth of theatre began with Greek tragedy and I have always loved theatre – it has always been a big part of my life.”

(from left) Shreya Lakhani, Taiwo Oyebola, Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, Shivaike Shah, Charithra Chandran, Rishem Khattar and Sade Clarke

Amewudah-Rivers was given permission to adapt a 2008 trans­lation of Medea by the Scottish poet, Robin Robertson.

She wanted to make Medea “relevant to modern-day audienc­es using a BAME cast and crew”.

She said: “One of the things about drama here at Oxford is that it is very much the same type of people performing in all the plays.

“It is usually people who have done lots of drama before, been to really good schools and have had access to great theatre and have the confidence to perform.

“One of the things I really want­ed to bring out in this BAME pro­duction was the new talent and people who haven’t done lots of drama here.

“But you can see there is a will­ingness to learn. There is raw tal­ent and that shouldn’t be pushed aside for people who are more confident and have had more ex­perience. We have just shown that they are capable, if you really be­lieve in something.”