Mandala Theatre comes to Pegasus
"These are actual people. They’re not just statistics and they’re not a number on a piece of paper or a screen."
Place, identity and belonging – the basis of Mandala Theatre Company’s three year plan.
They’re in year one, during which they are bringing Nadia Davids’ Night Light to Pegasus Theatre, where company director Yasmin Sidhwa worked for 17 years.
With just a couple of days before the Night Light premiere in France, I stepped off the wet St Aldate’s pavement into Oxford Town Hall. I was met in reception by Yasmin, whose funky cardi and cheeriness contrasted with the miserable rain outside. Through we went to the Heritage Learning Centre, where she had been rehearsing with actors Oliver Davis, Brenton Hamilton and Aimee Powell.
“It’s about having pathways for actors from diverse backgrounds,” Yasmin says of Mandala. “They’re recruited from Oxford and the Midlands specifically, because people get far more opportunities in London and Manchester.”
Mandala is an organisation that concentrates on social justice; it’s a subject that has shaped Yasmin’s work for years. One piece she did at Pegasus was about the recent Gaza conflict, and then came the Pegasus Gaza Scholarship which saw young people from the affected territory come over to work with Pegasus. Yasmin still receives messages from some of these young Gaza residents fearful of the bombs that continue to hit. The topics she addresses are not the sort that can be forgotten about after a theatre project.
“What you can’t do is go: ‘this is just a little topic I’m going to take and then I’m going to put it away’. You don’t switch off,” she says.
Nadia Davids’ play caters to Mandala’s ethos. “This show focuses on young people who come here aged 11 and 12 as lone minors,” Yasmin informs. “At 18 they’re often chucked back out of the country and they’ve got nowhere to go back to. Their families aren’t there and their homes have been destroyed. It’s a really difficult situation because they feel they belong here.”
Oliver Davis embodies a social worker in Night Light: “Some companies choose their plays based on what the director wants to put on,” he says, “and not particularly on why they should do it and why now. That’s what I find enticing about Mandala’s ethic: it wants to explore current issues.”
A play about refugees seems to me as relevant today as it could be. “Do you think we’re so busy talking about numbers, jobs and houses that we forget refugees are actually human beings?” I ask.
“Absolutely,” Aimee Powell answers. “These are actual people. They’re not just statistics and they’re not a number on a piece of paper or a screen. They’re actual people with actual lives, and actual families, who have actually experienced this.”
“And they’re not coming here for no reason,” Yasmin continues. “That’s the big thing.” Refugees have seen a rehearsed reading of the production. “They were saying: ‘It’s our lives and we want people to know it’,” the director recalls. Asylum seekers Mandala spoke to would also tell them to show audiences why they have left their countries.
“I see it as a responsibility to never judge a character,” Brenton Hamilton tells me. “There’s always justification for why a character is doing what they’re doing. It’s about understanding where they are, where they’ve come from, and that they’re reacting to their environment. Role play and improvisation help you put yourself in that scenario.”
“It has got really emotional,” Aimee states of what she has come across in the process. “But as an actor I don’t want to shy away from that because it’s people’s truth. It’s happened. Why should I switch off from that just because it’s horrific? I’d feel like I was doing an injustice to the young people we’ve met, it’s their story, I can’t say ‘that’s too much, I’m not going to go there’ – because they’ve been there.”
Night Light finds itself on the programme for Shakespeare Oxford 2016. Salma, portrayed by Aimee, draws parallels between her world and the western world using Pericles.
“We’re not really taking the Pericles story,” Yasmin says. “We’re taking elements that are really relevant.
“In Pericles there’s a boat full of people begging fishermen to help them,” she tells me, highlighting the parallels between Shakespeare’s work and today’s refugee crisis, which has included the scenes that saw three year old Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on a Turkish beach – the famous imagery of which has a role in Night Light.
I was talking to the company prior to their trip to Grenoble’s Rencontre International Theatre Festival, where Night Light premiered. In September it comes to Pegasus as part of the autumn tour.
“I hope more of the young people seeking asylum will see it, as well as young people and their parents who have anti-asylum seekers views,” Yasmin says. “I think it’s really important for everybody to not necessarily think like we do, but to just come, see it and say: ‘well, I hadn’t thought about it like that’.”
Each Mandala show will be followed by a debate. The company is aiming to involve refugees, NGOs, local councillors and politicians in these. “I’m going to try and contact Nicola Blackwood and Andrew Smith,” Yasmin reveals.
“I think it’s really good to hear what people are feeling,” she also says of the debates, “and I hope it will be people who don’t necessarily share my perspective because I think that makes it a proper dialogue.”
“Oxford strikes me as a very understanding city,” Oliver remarks about his current location. “It’s very tolerant and open to diverse viewpoints. But it will be great to take Night Light out to places that are less so and where we’re more likely to make people think again about their beliefs.”
“We’re also going to Bury St. Edmunds,” Yasmin says. “That’s quite a rural monoculture. We don’t only want to go to urban cities where there are many immigrants and people seeking asylum, but also to areas where it’s more rural – they maybe haven’t been confronted by the situation.”
“That’s what theatre is there for,” Aimee points out. “It should be making us question, making us think, inspiring us…”
“Making us feel,” her director adds.
Night Light comes to Pegasus Theatre 28th & 29th September.
Related Articles: 20 years of Creation Theatre