October 10 2015
Birmingham Repertory Theatre brings Meera Syal’s award winning novel, ‘Anita & Me’ to the stage in an adaptation by playwright, Tanika Gupta and theatre’s artistic director, Roxana Silbert. Our correspodent finds out more…
BY Tasha Mathur
MEERA SYAL’S “Anita and Me” is a story that is well known and much loved by readers far and wide.
Since first being published in 1996, the novel’s timeless themes, intriguing characters and brilliant humour has seen Syal’s debut novel be first turned into a film of the same name (2002) and now a stage version. The novel was also recently added to the national curriculum.
But why “Anita and Me”?
“It’s a very brilliant novel which tells a story that is regionally quite resonant and it seemed like an important story to tell. It’s written by someone who grew up in the region and we like to put on work that resonates with our audience and their experiences. So it seemed like a great novel to adapt,” explained Roxana Silbert, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s artistic director.
However, adapting such a well-loved novel into a stage play didn’t come without its difficulties.
“The major challenge was that obviously the novel has lots of colourful people in it. If you did it with every single person, you’d have a cast of hundreds and obviously that’s not feasible,” explained Silbert. And with the initial draft consisting of 16 actors, the play now has 12 actors playing approximately 20 characters. Silbert added: “There’s also a lot of beautiful description in the novel and how you make that theatrical rather than descriptive is a big challenge. You have to think of the different ways of telling the story technically.”
Playwright Tanika Gupta explained how she overcame this challenge through adding an interesting dimension to the play that couldn’t come through in the novel.
“I always dislike narrations on stage; when someone steps forward into the spotlight and starts telling a story. So there are songs in it as well. It’s not a musical but it is a play with music. I’ve been writing a lot of lyrics to the songs and worked with composers who have put my lyrics to music. It’s all about the world of Meena so in a sense, that’s a kind of narration but in other senses, it’s not.”
It’s clear that this stage adaptation of “Anita and Me” will come with interesting new dimensions to the story that haven’t been explored before. However, both Gupta and Silbert were very keen to keep true to the essence of Syal’s novel. And with Gupta and Syal knowing each other quite well (Syal having previously acted in some of Gupta’s works), Syal happily left Gupta to create her own unique dramatisation.
“She more of less said, ‘Guys go away and do it’. She has been involved in terms of talking to the actors and director. But in terms of the script, it’s very much my dramatisation of it,” revealed Gupta.
With the novel being set in the Black Country, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre is certainly the perfect place to adapt this story. However, with the play also coming to Theatre Royal Stratford East in London, Silbert hopes to appeal to a wide range of audiences as possible.
She said: “Both Stratford East and Birmingham have very diverse audiences. The play is about cultural identity so that feels pertinent when you put it in a city like Birmingham or an area like Stratford where lots of people have mixed backgrounds. I hope the questions that Meena goes through to find her own cultural identity will mean something to the people watching it.”
Gupta said the regional perspective was important and didn’t want to lose it in the stage version.
Echoing Silbert, she said: “It’s very important to show this in Birmingham because Meena is from the Midlands and this story is very much a coming-of-age story of a young Asian girl in the Black country particularly.
“The entire cast have Black Country accents and with eight female cast members as this is a very woman centred piece. It’s about two girls’ friendship so in that respect, it’s lovely to see so many females on stage, which we don’t get enough of. It’s also a story of a mining village and white working class people so it speaks to a very big, wide ranging audience.
“Theatre Royal Stratford East will love it because they enjoy community-based stories. It’s basically about a village, which is falling apart.”
And this was an important aspect that Gupta felt especially keen to focus on in her adaptation of “Anita and Me”.
“What I’ve been very interested to bring out, and what people forget about, is the politics of the book. The fact that we’re talking about a white working class mining village, which basically gets destroyed by the motorway and the fact that people have lost their jobs, don’t have money and live impoverished lives and so forth. So you get a real sense of this very working class town.”
Being set in 1972, there is the possibility of the story becoming less relevant to today’s audiences.
However Silbert insisted: “The novel remains relevant. I suppose there’s two generations. There are the parents who first came to the country and then there are the girls. It works for teenagers because it’s a coming-of-age story about facing the difficulties that all teenagers of all backgrounds face.
“Then there is also a story for those adults who remember what it was like in 1972 and how different things are now. It is important to remember how much things have changed. There are things in the novel that we would consider completely unacceptable but were considered everyday then.”
With Meena’s family being the only Asian family in a white, working class village, the novel highlights the ingrained racism that was very prevalent during this time.
Gupta pointed out: “This tells a very rare story that we don’t hear enough of; a young Asian person who has to go through the horrific racism that we all faced and many of us still do.
“But in the 1970s, you didn’t have the Race Relations Act and Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech was very recent. I’m around the same age as Meera so I totally recognise that landscape and it’s something that I felt very strongly about as a young Asian girl. Being ridiculed and called names, does affect your self-confidence but with a strong family behind you…It’s quite a joyous and hopeful story.”
So, what will be the most significant element audiences might take away from this fresh adaption of “Anita and Me”?
Gupta: “The bottom line is, it’s going to be a very visually entertaining evening. It’s vibrant and fun but it’s also got a lot of gritty, high emotion in it. I watched the run yesterday and got very tearful.
“I’m quite a hardened old cynic, so I sat there thinking, ‘Am I crying from relief that it actually worked or am I crying because it’s moving?’ I then looked around the room at people who hadn’t seen it before and they were crying so I thought ‘okay, that’s good’. So I think there are moments where you understand the isolation of an Indian family and you relate to the racism and misery that causes.
“And at the same time, the way the white working class Anita is so damaged in terms of poverty and her mother running out on her Dad. So that’s quite moving as well.”
Silbert: “It’s a very lively, very warm hearted, some of it is very funny but also touching and I hope that it’s a show that the whole family can enjoy.”
Main picture: Ameet Chana and Ayesha Dharkar in rehearsals for ‘Anita and Me’; author Meera Syal
- ‘Anita & Me‘ runs until October 24 at Birmingham Rep Theatre please visit: http://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/event/anita-and-me/
- ‘Anita & Me‘ from October 29-November 21 at Theatre Stratford Royal East please see: