In 1914, soldiers of the Indian Army travelled over four thousand miles to fight alongside the British in the First World War. Few of them spoke English, and many were unable to read or write. Four years later, 72,000 of them lay dead. Written by Ishy Din, Wipers is an engaging new play commissioned by Leicester’s Curve to commemorate the plight of these soldiers, shining light on the often overlooked sacrifices of the British Empire.
Indian soldiers were first deployed in October 1914 in the First Battle of Ypres. The play opens with Lance Naik Sadiq (Simon Rivers) stumbling into a dilapidated barn, having been cut off from the rest of his company. He is closely followed by Second Lieutenant Thomas Dixon-Wright (Jassa Ahluwalia), a young and inexperienced English officer, and after an exchange in fractured English, they decide they must secure the barn. They are joined by two more soldiers, the practical, fatherly Alla Ditta (Sartaj Garewal) and the naïve, idealistic Ayub (Waleed Akhtar). The play follows the four men as they break down class, culture and language barriers in order to survive the night.
“The character’s progression from barely-suppressed terror to self-assuredness is beautifully realised”
What the play lacks in dramatic action it makes up for in beautifully-realised character relationships. Ishy Din’s script is forensically researched, and although there is the odd clunky moment of exposition, he excels in building four very different but very real characters. The officer, Thomas, is not a privileged public schoolboy, but a grammar school student who can hardly believe his luck at gaining a commission. In this way, Din cleverly parallels Thomas’ insecurities about his social class with the Indian soldiers’ frustration with racial prejudice, and brings together four men who, despite their racial, lingual and class differences, connect with each other through each being an outsider.
The performances are superb. Jassa Ahluwalia is outstanding as the wide-eyed officer, desperate to live up to his commission but hopelessly out of his depth. Ahluwalia is vocally and physically impressive; his performance is imbued with detail, from his endearingly plummy RP to his slightly rounded shoulders and hesitant gait, as though he is apologising for his very presence. The character’s progression from barely-suppressed terror to self-assuredness is beautifully realised. There is also excellent work from Simon Rivers as the embittered Sadiq, whose emotionally-charged monologue towards the play’s close is one of the highlights of the production. Also giving terrific support is Sartaj Garewal as Alla-Ditta, who gives real poignancy to the discussion of his young son, and Waleed Akhtar as Ayub, who displays strong comic timing.
“‘Wipers’ is a well-written and thought-provoking play, presenting a familiar subject from a startlingly under-explored perspective”
The play could go further in its discussion of colonialism- one feels Thomas is rather let off the hook when his blustering about Empire is cut short by a fight- but Suba Das directs with skill and assuredness. The blocking of the piece is exquisite, and Das must be commended for his well-considered pacing of a piece which is driven by words rather than action. Isla Shaw’s richly-detailed set is magnificent, as is Prema Mehta’s atmospheric lighting design, whilst Jon Nicholls’ sound design effectively evokes the eeriness of an autumn night on the front line.
Wipers is a well-written and thought-provoking play, presenting a familiar subject from a startlingly under-explored perspective. The strength of Suba Das’ direction, alongside excellent work from the design team and superb performances from the four actors, marks Curve out as one of the UK’s most exciting and daring producing houses.
Laura Jayne Bateman
‘Wipers’ is on tour until Saturday 21 May 2016 .