Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Deepika Arwind and Jo Tyabji: Phantasmagoria

By | Published on Sunday 29 October 2023

Beginning a run this week at Southwark Playhouse’s Borough venue is ‘Phantasmagoria’, presented by Kali Theatre, written by Deepika Arwind and directed by Jo Tyabji.

It’s about a celebrated student activist who is taken to an isolated location to participate in a debate with a powerful political opponent, and finds herself growing in fear and paranoia that the situation is not what it seems.

I was very intrigued by the sound of the play and wanted to find out more about it, and the creative team behind it. I spoke to Deepika and Jo, ahead of opening night.

CM: Can you start by telling us what ‘Phantasmagoria’ is all about? What story does it tell?
DA: I think ‘Phantasmagoria’ tells a version of the story of fear and othering. I say ‘a version’ because it’s one way of how this happens and, as we know, there are several.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
JT: Fear, power, whether the one can exist without the other: for amity to exist, does there need to be the threat point, the fear of repercussion, to prevent the other crossing the threshold and stepping into enmity?

The play explores what happens when violent ideas are expressed quietly, politely – with a smile.

CM: What inspired you to explore these themes through this piece? What made you decide to write this?
DA: When I wrote this play, I really felt a sense of despondence. I felt we were unable to talk to each other, and the play came out of the desire to see how it would be to speak to the person I disagreed with the most. What might it take to walk that distance?

CM: Would you call the play political? Does it have specific messages?
DA: It’s about people who are invested in life outside of themselves – public life in a sense and their roles in it. I hope the audience is able to ‘see’ through the folds of both metaphorical and literal darkness in it.

JT: The play explores a dynamic that has become all too familiar across many different global arenas in recent political history. I think it’s articulating something true, and visible, in the kinds of nationalisms we’re experiencing today, in the UK and elsewhere.

But each audience will have to tell us what message they find in the articulation of that: I think that will be personal to you.

CM: How did the production with Kali Theatre come about?
DA: I was very kindly introduced to Kali by the playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. Helena Bell – AD at Kali Theatre – and I talked subsequently and we resonated with each other.

JT: Dramaturg Nic Wass and I had worked together on Inua Ellams’ version of ‘Antigone’, and she suggested Deepika and I would get along. She was right!

CM: Can you tell us about the creative team working on the show?
JT We’ve got an extraordinary roll call of talent, it’s been a joy collaborating with them. Set designer Roisin Martindale and I began workshopping ideas with consultant designer Miriam Nabarro, thinking about atmosphere, place, and how to create a sense of risk in a small space.

We were joined by lighting designer Neill Brinkworth and video designer Gillian Tan to workshop specific effects that are central to the storytelling – no spoilers! – Gillian and Neill have worked together before and are just so dynamic and skilled at treating video as light and light as image making, they’re an incredible duo.

Sound designer Dinah Mullen brought a brilliant concept for how naturalistic sounds could form the bedrock of the atmosphere, and we worked with Gillian and Neill to create a language where sound, light and shadow are pulling together.

CM: Did you always want to be a playwright, Deepika?
DA: I have a background in journalism – for a short time – as well as acting and writing. And somehow the performer and the writer converged in the embodiment of the playwright! I’ve been in the work of theatre formally for about thirteen years and informally for 20. I think that’s been my experience.

CM: What have been the highlights of both your careers thus far?
DA: I’ve loved performing my solo show ‘No Rest In The Kingdom’, and another work I wrote and directed called ‘I Am Not Here: An 8-step Guide In How To Censor Women’s Writing’.

Most recently I was part of a collective piece we created in Zurich called the ‘International Conference Of Insecurity’ made by eight writers/performers from around the world. I also just finished writing ‘Cumin’, a play about food, family and distance.

JT: I love making work that brings complex ideas into the arena of popular entertainment so that they can reach a broad public and live in the popular imagination: Inua’s version of ‘Antigone’ did that and I think ‘Phantasmagoria’ does it too.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
DA: I want to write plays that speak to our world’s complexity with structures that excite and challenge me. I also want to make text-based / poetic work in installation formats. I want to work with teenagers more. And I want to work with Jo Tyabji again!

JT: My biggest ambition is a mega adaptation of Ali Smith’s ‘Seasons’ quartet. And to make another show with Deepika Arwind!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
DA: More writing. I’m writing a play about the idea of protest, and another about the action of making images and the ripples it has in the world.

JT: I’m developing two shows that explore the climate crisis, one for tinies and one for young adults. It’s a brilliant challenge: how do you acknowledge and make work about what’s happening, while empowering and enabling – and entertaining?

‘Phantasmagoria’ is on at Southwark Playhouse (Borough) from 1-25 Nov. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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