“love does not exist in a vacuum
love is affected by the real world
your race your class your gender your region your faith your work
these inform how you love how you loved how you’ve been loved how you want love how you want to love
+ love includes it all
a love story can’t be apolitical”
I wanna be yours is a love story. Ella is a struggling actress, Haseeb is a successful poet. Ella lives South of the river, Haseeb North. Ella is from Yorkshire, Haseeb from London. Haseeb is brown, Ella is white. Haseeb’s family celebrate Eid, Ella’s family celebrate Christmas. In delicately crafted vignettes, Zia Ahmed’s play follows how they navigate these different facets of their identity as they come together and collide. The result is a subtle and relatable depiction of the intricacies of loving someone across and with these differences – the intersections of love and politics.
Anna Himali Howard’s direction brings a cohesive aesthetic across the production. It is slightly whimsical, but with a sharp edge, like re-watching a Disney film when you’re old enough to realise how problematic it is but still yearn for its untroubled sweetness. The beige patterned carpet, dilapidated velvet curtains and stray chairs of Mydd Pharo’s design provides a versatile set, suggesting mosque, living room and room above a pub, all at once. At the beginning of the play, the three performers, Ragevan Vasan, Emily Stott, Rachael Merry, stand in a line and remove their shoes and socks before stepping onto the carpet, as if making the performance space sacred.
The performers are highly engaging to watch, bouncing on the balls of their feet to shivers and scurries of strings from Anna Clock’s atmospheric sound design. Ragevan Vasan as Haseeb and Emily Stott as Ella develop a real sense of connection. Rachael Merry, who translates Haseeb and Ella’s words into British Sign Language, is magnetic. I wanna be yours is fully BSL integrated and the integration adds to the meaning of the show. Though I initially worried that Merry might seem like a third wheel in Ella and Haseeb’s relationship and compromise the intimacy of the form of a two-hander, she has the ability to make herself unobtrusive when needed, now seeming to side with one character, now another. Her physical presence between the two of them at various points brings home how a relationship gets mediated and what gets in the way. The BSL also suggests how things may be gained as well as lost in translation. One of the most tender moments comes when Ella sings a love song to Haseeb, translating it into BSL as she does so. Later, they do the song together. The physical movements become a love language. Such moments make watching the production like stepping into a warm bath. Even when Haseeb and Ella have difficult conversations, there is a sense that they are really trying to understand each other’s perspectives as much as possible; there is a generosity in that empathy.
Yet even empathy has limits. Although the choice of music recalls an old-fashioned romcom, there are things that are hard to swallow or overlook. Incidents in which Haseeb is made aware of his race, his difference, arrest the progress of the narrative and the relationship. He is, repeatedly, mistaken for a drug dealer at a party with Ella’s drama school friends, and described as ‘urban’ by Ella’s brother. Ella has these moments too – pointing out ‘I’m white’ when Haseeb complains about ‘the unbearable whiteness’ of the poetry festival he’s performing at. ‘I don’t mean you’, he says, ‘I mean white people’. But, in both cases, it’s the individuals that get hurt even if the problems are structural. The strings grow discordant. Ella’s struggles – being a Northerner in London trying to get work as an actress – seem more trivial in comparison to the discrimination Haseeb faces and at points the play feels more his story than theirs. Yet Ella still seems a rounded character and her perspective is given weight too.
Zia Ahmed’s background as a performance poet shows in the writing: the short, episodic scenes; the striking images that seem to suck all the air from the room. Haseeb biting his tongue in response to Ella’s mum’s racism in a restaurant morphs into an extended description of him cutting out and eating his tongue; it grows back, he cuts it out and eats it again, and again, the metaphor spinning out compulsively. In another incident, Ella’s elephant ornament she got from India comes alive and grows and grows. They name it Andre. It starts to come everywhere with them, making their lives together increasingly difficult to live, coming to seem like something they cannot get past.
The loose structure of the play is a bit meandering and the ending comes at an unexpected time. But perhaps that is the point. Relationships don’t fall into neat narrative structures while they are being lived.
I wanna be yours is touring till 30th November, and at the Bush Theatre 4th December – 18th January. More info here.