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Some Small Corner of a Foreign Field...Directing Wipers with Suba Das

Posted on 7 April 2016

Did you know that 70, 000 South Asian soldiers joined the allied forces in WW1?

Did you know that 12 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Indian soldiers in World War 1, one of the highest percentages received by any nationality during the conflict?

Did you know that British Indian forces fought and died in nineteen countries during World War 1 including France, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Romania, Kenya, Tanzania, Hong Kong, India, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Syria and The Lebanon?

In Ishy Din’s explosive new play WIPERS, we witness the story of this incredible contribution as seen through the eyes of four young soldiers. Stranded in a barn after falling back from the front line at Ypres, four young soldiers – Sadiq, AD, Ayub and Thomas – must face their own deamons and find a way to come together in the face of life and death.

Ahead of the show’s opening in Coventry, we spoke to Director Suba Das about some of the real men whose story inspired this epic WW1 drama, soon to be brought to life on stage.

Where does the action of Wipers take place?

The play takes place during October 1914 on the night of the first battle of Ypres. This was one of the most horrific early battles in the First World War and one of the first battles in which South Asian soldiers joined the British forces to support the Commonwealth campaign. This battle was characterised by a new kind of mechanised warfare – tanks, shells, heavy artillery, things that simply hadn’t been experienced by young men before.

Ishy’s play takes as its point of departure, the story of four young men from across the world who have fallen back in that battle and have been forced to seek refuge in a barn in the midst of this hell on earth.

We understand that the play takes its inspiration from the real-life experiences of Khuddadad Khan. Who was Khuddadad and how does his story fit into this piece?

Yes, that’s right. Khudadad was a soldier who fought at the Ypres campaign and is famous for being the first South Asian soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery.

When the ‘fall back’ referred to throughout the play happened, Khudaddad – who was a machine gun operator – had been shot in both legs and left out in the field by himself all night. Badley wounded and alone, Khuddad nevertheless succeeded in maintaining operation of his machine gun post through the night, single-handedly holding off the enemy advance. It was this act of extreme bravery that won Khuddad his Victoria Cross.

The story of the play however, explores what it feels like to be seeking refuge whilst a friend and ally is doing such an incredible men and how a person finds the courage to go back out into the unknown.

What inspired you to commission this piece and what is it about this particular time and place that interested you?

Our starting point for this commission was acknowledging what contribution we – as a venue – could make to the centenary of WW1. Here in Leicester as in Coventry, we are a city characterised by a very large South Asian population. Not far into my research into the period, I discovered that over a million South Asian men volunteered to join the British Army during the First World War.

What astonished me even more was that, as a nationality, South Asians received one of the highest percentages of Victoria Crosses during the conflict. That’s an incredible contribution and something we should all be proud of.

For both myself and Ishy, the writer, it not only felt important but necessary to throw light onto this aspect of British cultural history, one which – in most narratives of the period – tends to be overlooked.

Many third or fourth generation South Asians living in Britain today may never have visited the place that their grandparents or great-grandparents came to the UK from. How important is it, do you think, that they connect with their history?

Here in Leicester and across the UK, we have so many ethnically diverse young people at school learning about the First World War just aren’t seeing themselves reflected in that narrative of sacrifice. For that reason, it felt really vital to find a story that connected them to this shared heritage and to Britain’s long-history of cross cultural collaboration.

Ishy Din came into playwrighting late in life after working for 30 years as a taxi driver. What is it about Ishy’s writing that made you want to work with him on Wipers?

Part of the reason that we asked Ishy Din to take on writing this play for us is his incredible track record in creating these extraordinary, vibrant and contemporary depictions of ordinary young men.

Just because a play is set in 1914, it doesn’t mean that the play has to feel ‘Edwardian’ in style.

From the offset, we wanted that contemporary flavour to be part of the characterization in this piece. An important message for me personally when approaching the play was that this could be any four young men barely out of their teens. Yes, they come to the trenches with their own unique histories and issues but, ultimately, each of them finds a way to come together in the face trauma.

Within that mix of four we have our protagonist Sadiq, a young South Asian man who is dealing with the complexity of being from a really poor, rural South Asian background but is offered a way out through volunteering with the British Army like so many young South Asian men of the time. Sadiq is really the living, breathing embodiment of the complexities of colonialism and what that means psychologically for a young man trying to make his own way in the world.
Then there’s Thomas, a young British officer who – as with many of the young men who found themselves in the trenches – is entirely out of his depth amidst the chaos and confusion of Ypres. In some ways, Thomas is having to realize that this myth of glorious warfare really is a myth and, in doing so, figure out what that means for his relationship both to his own ancestors in Britain and to the young men for whom he is responsible on the front line.

Sadiq also encounters AD, another South Asian soldier who is very gruff and straightforward in his approach to why they’re out there and what they’re there to do. In many ways, AD is the moral backbone of the play as he believes strongly that leaving Khuddadad out in the field is the wrong thing to do, despite the infinite risks. Then finally, there’s Ayub, our youngest character – a wide-eyed, freshed-faced young South Asian recruit and very much the counterpoint to Thomas who comes into the conflict with a degree of naivety and who is also trying to figure out what it means to be there. As the more educated South Asian voice in the play, he’s also able to bring in some of that wider political history into the mix.

Through the combination of all of these elements, you begin to see some big issues being raised but also, in Ishy’s capable hands, the real, human struggle of what it means for four teenagers to come face to face with life and death at such a young age.

What do you think we, as a modern audience, can take away from this play?

At the end of the day, they were just young men. Yes they were from hugely different backgrounds but, against all the odds, they somehow found a way to see beyond difference in the pursuit of something noble, something true.

I think that one of the things we can be really proud of here in the UK is our long-tradition of respecting and celebrating diversity. I think it’s important that audiences understand that this tradition of collaboration goes back a long way, before 1914 even. Yes, that history isn’t without its complexities. Yes, there are aspects of that history which should be celebrated and others that we would rather forget but ultimately, it’s what made Britain the country that it is today.
That’s what we want people to take away from the show – especially young audiences – that extraordinary things happen when people come together.

Wipers will run from Thurs 12 – Sat 21 May in B2. Tickets are priced from £10.25 – £17. For more information and to book, call the Belgrade Theatre Box Office on 024 7655 3055 or visit www.belgrade.co.uk where tickets are cheaper.

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Sep 20, 2017, 1:41 pm