Two Billion Beats (Orange Tree Theatre)
Accessibly offering livestream and online on demand versions of their shows, I was able to watch Sonali Bhattacharyya’s Two Billion Beats from home — and well, to watch it at all.
It does mean that you miss out on one of the sisters’ Asha’s listening to music and resolutely ignoring the audience as she is fully immersed in her book. Safiyya Ingar and Anoushka Chadha portray two sisters (an older and younger, at war with each other, their mum, their relationships within the family and their status at school). As Asha, Safiyya Ingar, is 17, fearless, studious, inspired and wanting to be part-Gandhi and part Sylvia Pankhurst revolutionary. What she won’t do is stand up for her younger sister, Bettina, more conventional, sweet and pretty, who is being cruelly and relentlessly bullied on the bus from school, every day.
Not only does this play challenge us to think about how women do or don’t support each other (with the Pankhursts used as an exemplar), but it also forces us to think about truth as Bettina stands up to her bullies, but tells a lie in the process. Bettina gets her beloved hamster house and popularity — but at what cost to her bully’s character and life chances? How will the sisters navigate these ethical dilemmas, their own relationship and family/school expectations?
It is wonderfully funny and creative. Where it falls down is in not being Roy Williams. Roy Williams (like Andrea Levy) always manages to have sympathy and humanity for all his characters, even the ones we’re meant to dislike. Sonali Bhattacharyya is more clunky — the teacher in directing Asha away from her essay desire to Magna Carta and then marking down the essay she really wants to do is obviously racist and discriminatory. This felt unfair and untrue — perhaps the teacher really was trying to help the student within the limits of exam boards and mark schemes to achieve their ambition of going to Uni. But here it is a blinkered white teacher blocking brown and black ambitions cos prejudice. This seemed unfair to the teacher who (tho unseen in the play) seemed previously to be investing so much time and effort in focusing a student. Perhaps it was misguided to discourage these essay writing ambitions — or perhaps it was the right thing to do within the limits of mark schemes and exam boards?!!! And though disparaged as boring (cos white men) isn’t Magna Carta of importance for everyone? (setting in stone much of the rights Sylvia Pankhurst was to champion along with her mother and siblings much later on?)
This is where the play fell down for me — the characters no longer ran true and it became smaller and obvious somehow. Ofcourse it was a racist wrong to be righted. More intriguing was how the relationship with the boy falsely accused of carrying a knife was Bettina was going to resolve (or not) and what Bettina was going to do with forgiveness and her persecutor’s apology as Asha seeks to mediate and bring justice.
Heart breakingly truthful were the stories filtering through of Asha’s Mum and her radicalised or not friend; of betrayal of friends, sisters and brothers; of not doing the right thing and in navigating how to do the right thing in a complex world; of books and beats; of what it means to be a clever girl wanting to learn in a world which doesn’t value clever, articulate black and brown girls and women. It is fascinating watching the twists and turns of Asha and Bettina’s lives and how they will turn out…