December 5 2014
Exploring the shooting of Mark Duggan which set off the 2011 London Riots and asking the vital question, who polices the police, is just one of the many behind the play ‘State Red’
By Suman Bhuchar
WHAT does it feel like to have your name in the headlines, I ask, Atiha Sen Gupta, an emerging British theatre writer, whose second play, “State Red” has been playing at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.
“It feels very nice,” she acknowledges, “because it’s been three years in the making and five years since I had a play on.”
The ‘play’, she is referring to is her debut piece, “What Fatima Did” which was on at the main stage of Hampstead Theatre in 2009.
Sen Gupta’s passion for theatre was ignited when she got involved with the Heat and Light Company at Hampstead Theatre. This was a youth theatre company that her school – the Hampstead School in Camden – had a relationship with. Here she began acting, writing and directing: “It was brilliant, I loved it,” she recalls.
Later, she was asked to enter a competition to write four pages of script and the prize was the chance to work with the playwright, Roy Williams whose work she admired. (Incidentally, his play, “Wildefire”, also about the police has overlapped with “State Red”).
The rest, as they say, is history. Her piece got the green light.
“It was the first time a member of Heat and Light was commissioned for the main stage,” she told me at the time, when I interviewed her for www.theatrevoice.com.
To be commissioned to write a full length play at the age of seventeen was no mean feat, and ultimately, “What Fatima Did” was produced four years later, to great acclaim.
The play looks at the decision of a young Muslim schoolgirl who decides to take up wearing the hijab and the reactions of her friends, family and other feminist women.
It examined notions of identity and freedom and ‘spoke’ in a colloquial London voice. The text is now taught at universities and it was also performed in Hanover, Germany where it won the prestigious JugendStückePreis award in 2012.
At the same time, she was also part of the writing team of the E4 drama, “Skins” and then went on to study politics and sociology at Warwick University, graduating in 2012.
She has a very engaging manner, and talks very fast – her thoughts and ideas tumbling out.
“State Red”, she says, was inspired by the shooting of Tottenham Resident, Mark Duggan by a police marksman identified only as V53.
It is a dialogue-driven piece exploring the dilemma and ethics around such a shooting, and poses the important question, who polices the police.
The action is set in a mixed race family home, where the father is a white high ranking police officer, and the mother, a black career woman and their son another police officer.
Sen Gupta regularly comes to see her work.
“There is nothing that beats the feeling of live performance. I sit there and worry for the actors, in my head I am going through the lines, I am hoping they are going to get the lines and nothing is going to happen to them.
“There is an unpredictability that is exciting, there is an uncertainty when you sit down to see a play and with ‘State Red’, when the lights go down especially because there is no interval – it’s feels like a 73-minute rollercoaster, I literally can’t get off – once you get on you just have to go with it.”
She also works with a Disability Rights Campaign group, World of Inclusion – an area of which she has some intimate, personal understanding. Her brother, Nihal who had cerebral palsy, died aged 17, and is the subject of her mother, Rahila Gupta’s play, “The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong”.
Politics and injustice are what inspire her to write, although she cheerfully admits she is not very disciplined when it comes down to sitting down and putting pen on paper.
“The reason I write is because I am angry, I am repulsed by so many things in this world and I passionately think all plays are political,” she emphasises.
‘State Red’ ends its month-long run tomorrow (December 6) Tickets from £5-£12, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London NW33EU. Box office:020 7722 9301
Hampstead Theatre Downstairs State Red
More (audio interviews)
‘What Fatima Did’
‘The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong’ with Rahila Gupta and Jaye Griffiths