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).
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.
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).
“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.”
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.”