THERE should be a “home” in the UK for south Asian stories, feels director Abdul Shayek whose latest creation is bringing to life what it was for Bangladeshi women to survive 1971 war and restart in a strange new land.
Tara Theatre is presenting Virtual Reality (VR) play titled AMMA from November 30 to Dec 17. The extensively researched and thought-provoking VR production is aimed at making audiences experience how women survived in wartorn Bangladesh, eventually forcing many to leave the country to build a new life in
a new place.
Created by Shayek, who is the artistic director and joint CEO at Tara Theatre, AMMA is the amalgamation of different narratives collected from community groups across Manchester, Birmingham and London. The play’s script is written by Kamal Khan.
Speaking to Eastern Eye, Shayek revealed how he is feeling a wave of mixed emotions – happiness that fruit of years’ labour is now out as well as sadness as his mother, the inspiration behind his creation, is no more around to see it.
“I had the idea of AMMA in my mind since 2018-2019, even before joining Tara. It’s a very personal project in so many ways. It is inspired by my mother but also by other women like her – Bangladeshi women who left Bangladesh postwar and came to the UK. “I’m happy and excited but also there’s a sadness that my mother didn’t get to see it in its final kind of iteration since she passed away in 2020,” Shayek told Eastern Eye.
AMMA is developed on the basis of rigorously collected first-hand testimonies of “more than 50 Bangladeshi women across the UK”.
On being asked why he chose VR as a medium, he said that it is a new form and a new space, adding that it was really interesting and useful to narrate the experiences through this medium. “I think what VR does is it makes you feel like you are there in that environment. There’s something about the way that makes you process the story, which is quite different to a theatre experience,” he said.
Stating that it is crucial that “younger audience too access this story”, Shayek further added that he also opted for VR with an aim to entice and intrigue younger audience as well, who will connect to this medium more as compared to a live stage performance. In this one-of-itskind VR play, audience will be invited in an east London council flat intricately created with a plastic flowery table cloth, piles of letters, bills, Bengali biscuits and lychees for the audience to try – all set inside Tara Theatre.
“We’ve created a living room in the theatre. The audience has to sit in the living room and put the VR headset on. They are kind of elements of the things that happen in the living room and you get to listen to some of the actual testimonies of the women that we interviewed,” Shayek told Eastern Eye.
“The immersive nature of it goes beyond and stays in the mind as one process the story differently.
“It’s a multi-sensory experience. It’s not just the visceral thing,” he said, sharing one of the audience member’s feedback where she had stated how emotions and feelings that she felt on watching AMMA is still with her even after days.
For over four decades, Tara Theatre has supported the emergence of generations of south Asian performers, writers, directors, musicians and choreographers, touring extensively both nationally and internationally.
Under Shayek’s leadership, Tara Theatre is continuing this work by creating innovative and politically charged work of art. “We are pushing, testing new ideas, new ways of telling stories and format. It’s a really exciting time to be here. And that’s the sense and vibe we get. Everyone’s kind of really intrigued with what we’re up to, and are kind of excited with what we’re up to and working on.
“I think Tara is redefining what it means to look at the world through a south Asian lens. We’re trying to redefine a lot of things. While we focus around south Asian stories, we are also open for conversations which are bigger and broader than just outh Asian narratives and stories.
However, he feels it is crucial to hold on to “our south Asian identity”. “I think it’s really important that there is a space in the UK, where our stories have an actual home,” he told Eastern Eye.
Born in Bangladesh, Shayek left the country when he was three. In his words, theatre happened to him “by accident” as he was trying to avoid going to the “vets” for his work experience placement in secondary school.
“So, I was trying to avoid going to the vet, and I was wandering around trying to find an alternative. I walked into a theatre and asked to do some work there for the experience. They said no first but soon agreed and that’s kind of where it all started,” he recalled while talking to Eastern Eye.
He continued and managed to land his first professional gig at this theatre when he was about 18 and very soon got the opportunity to direct. Later he moved from London to Cardiff to work for National Theatre, Wales, as one of the associates. He soon founded Fio, the only Asian, black and ethnically diverse led theatre company in Wales.
“I formed Fio and turned it from an idea into a fully-fledged company, which made shows that toured across the UK. We worked in international projects with artists from India, and Wales, bringing over artists from Mumbai. When I left the company, I left it with regular funding,” said the director.
Although he has done a bit of acting as well, he decided to be a director quite early in his career. “I love acting too but very soon directing felt like my way to make things right here because there are a lot of challenges with representation and how things are presented,” he said.
Shayek strongly feels in order to make those changes, people from varied backgrounds are needed not only to be on stage but also backstage, behind the cameras, and in the directing chair. “I was always keen on having autonomy. So, it just felt like it made sense to have a bit more of control and instead of being told what to do, for me it makes more sense to lead and make things happen,” he said.
Shayek is hopeful about changes that are happening in south Asian representation in the world of theatre and cinema.
“Until a few years ago, south Asian representation in British cinema was either extreme negative or plain comedy – it was horrible both ways.
“There was always this need to tell contemporary stories. And I think that’s happening at the moment. Lots of people are telling those stories, and placing those characters that are much more contemporary, much more here and now.
“South Asians are the biggest minority group in the UK. And I think it’s important that we tell those stories to serve our communities, in the way they need to be served so that future generations can see themselves on TV or on stage.
“I think a bigger question is class divide. There’s a lot of work to be done around class in the south Asian community. Among south Asians, there are some of the most affluent people in the world and some are living in extreme poverty. That is the real kind of discrepancy and we need to capture that,” he concluded.