Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Sonali Bhattacharyya: Liberation Squares

By | Published on Friday 26 April 2024

I was immediately interested when I heard about ‘Liberation Squares’ because it sheds light on an important issue – the controversial government surveillance programme Prevent – while focusing on the lives of young women. And – bonus – it features live beatboxing. 

The play is the work of the talented Sonali Bhattacharyya. I spoke to her to find out more about the show, the creative team behind it and, of course, the playwright herself. 

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the narrative of ‘Liberation Squares’? Who is it about and what story does it tell?
SB: ‘Liberation Squares’ is about three teenage girls who go from being social media influencer activists to real life campaigners after being referred to the government surveillance programme ‘Prevent’.

Sabi and Ruqaya have been best friends since they first met at Baby Rhyme Time at the library. They now spend their time choreographing dance routines, beatboxing, rapping and hiding from bullies.

Everything changes when the charismatic and provocative Tik Tok legend Xara enters their lives, challenging them to speak up. But the three undergo a political awakening when they realise what you say, and even what you think, is viewed very differently depending on who you are.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
SB: ‘Liberation Squares’ is about the use of creative expression to speak up against austerity, gentrification and Islamophobia in an era when dissent is being criminalised. It’s a coming of age story about friendship and sisterhood.

CM: How would you describe it in terms of a style or genre?
SB: This is a riotous, funny play told through the technicolour lens of three teenage girls, with all the energy, confidence and moral certainty that entails.

The world of ‘Liberation Squares’ is inspired by graphic novels, hip hop, pop culture and real-world youth activists. Live beatboxing and rapping is integral to every show and, although it has a political edge, we have leaned into comedy to expose the absurdity of Prevent.

CM: What was the inspiration for this? What made you want to create something focused on these themes, this subject?
SB: I wanted to write a play about the incredible imagination, inquisitiveness and creativity teenagers have – this is what forges the messy bond between Xara, Ruqaya and Sabi.

Right now, we’re witnessing rapidly normalised Islamophobia and racism, including in government policies like the Prevent surveillance programme, and I wanted to explore how this inhibits young people’s confidence, freedom of expression, and even their futures.

I wanted to tell this story through the points of view of young people themselves, with all of the joyful spirit of rebellion that entails.

CM: Can you tell us about the workshops that helped inform the play and how they helped in the creation of it?
SB: ‘Liberation Squares’ was informed by extensive research and interviews with people impacted by Prevent, and a series of workshops with young Muslim women from the East Midlands who fed into the early development of the play, helping inform the characters and narrative.

Fifth Word are also running a parallel oral history project, ‘See Me’, with young Muslim women in Nottingham, in which they interview inspirational women of Muslim heritage in Nottingham and then transform their stories into a podcast series.

The podcast will be released weekly alongside the tour, and the project will also feature a graphic novel anthology and pop-up exhibition at every tour venue, giving further visibility to these women’s stories.

CM: Does the play have a message?
SB: If you haven’t come into contact with Prevent or been asked to report to the programme as part of your work, it’s likely you don’t know much about what is essentially a surveillance programme that targets a minoritised group on the unscientific basis of identifying pre-criminal tendencies.

We want as many young people as possible to see the play, especially young black and brown women and those from Muslim backgrounds, as they’ll hopefully share many of the preoccupations and challenges as the characters.

We also want public sector workers who have been pressurised to be complicit in Prevent to come and see the show. We start to make change by having these discussions.

CM: Have you been involved with the production of the play? Can you tell us a bit about the cast and creative team?
SB: I’m always very involved in the production of my plays, and am so happy to be working with Milli Bhatia again, who directed my play ‘Chasing Hares’ at the Young Vic in 2022. Milli’s an incredible director as well as an inclusive and generous collaborator.

The creative team are breathtakingly talented – watching them bring the world of Sabi, Xara and Ruqaya to life with such care, joy and ingenuity has been a real treat.

The cast – Halema Hussain, Asha Hassan and Vaneeka Dadhria – are brilliant, they’ve understood their characters and relationships so deeply and so quickly, and they have all brought their whole selves to this production.

Their performances are phenomenal. I’m really really lucky to be part of this team.

CM: And now can you tell us about yourself? Did you always want to be a creative? What steps did you take to begin a career in the arts?
SB: I was always into stories and making stuff as a kid. My dad bought a camcorder when I at high school – and having a particularly rubbish time – and I started making little films on it, playing with stop frame animation, writing short scripts and roping in my friends to make short films.

No one in my family has ever worked in the arts, but Bengali culture is steeped in music, poetry, theatre and cinema, so although my parents were worried about my career prospects when I wanted to study Media and Film at university, they were quite supportive. 

Quite heavy life stuff has interrupted my career at a couple of points, but I came back to the industry after a hiatus about seven or eight years ago. I made a conscious decision to only write what I was passionate about, and to tell stories I didn’t see being told anywhere else.

I was going to see how it went for a year and if I didn’t get anywhere I’d think of something else. But that single-mindedness and commitment to telling the stories I believed in helped me connect with like-minded people and I’ve been able to continue making work I love.

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life thus far?
SB: Every project is a joy, as it holds a world of possibility! But a highlight would be ‘Chasing Hares’ at the Young Vic, as the story was so rooted in my family’s experience in West Bengal, my politics and my hopes for the future.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
SB: I would love to write a musical about the history of rebellion and community from a British Asian perspective. I’m also really keen to develop my own ideas for television. There are so many incredible stories and perspectives I don’t yet see on our screens or stages.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
SB: I have two plays coming up that I’m really excited about. ‘King Troll (The Fawn)’ is a horror about the border regime, which will be on at New Diorama Theatre this autumn as part of Bec Martin’s first season as Artistic Director.

It was a finalist for the Women’s Prize For Playwriting last year and I’m really looking forward to finally bringing it to audiences.

I’m also working on a gloriously modern adaptation of ‘The Little Mermaid’ for Bristol Old Vic, which will be on this Christmas. You can book for both these shows now, so I hope your readers will join us!

‘Liberation Squares’ is on at Brixton House from 2-11 May. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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