‘Amma’: a theatrical journey using virtual reality to tackle weighty issues
Image credit: Manuel Harlan
New drama lets Bangladeshi women tell their stories of life in England with the help of VR.
‘Amma’ is a hybrid theatrical-VR experience that aims to bring audiences on a journey to Bangladesh and back, following a woman’s recollections of the War of Independence. This war was fought in 1971 between West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and ended with the establishment of an independent Bangladesh.
In many ways, women hold important roles in Bangladeshi society. Its two political dynasties are led by women and the growth of its economy is in no small part thanks to the millions of women who work in the garment industry. However, while researching the war in the run-up to its fiftieth anniversary, director Abdul Shayek noticed that there were few stories of ordinary women like his late mother, who migrated from Bangladesh to the UK when he was three years old.
Countless women like his mother, Shayek explains, experienced trauma due to the conflict in Bangladesh – which involved the rape of hundreds of thousands of Bengali women and girls – followed by additional trauma due to racial hostility in the UK. He considers ‘Amma’ - which is based on testimony from Bangladeshi women across England - an opportunity to unpack their experiences.
“No one ever gave them any space and time to reflect and understand and try to heal,” he says. “It felt like a really useful and important opportunity for us to talk to these women to understand what happened to them and find a way to make sure that these stories are archived for future generations.”
Shayek says that this is a salient moment for telling their stories. Britain has a heightened awareness of its colonial legacy, compounded with awareness of the unequal impacts of climate change: the two are inextricably linked. Bangladesh is one of the lowest-lying countries in the world, putting it “at the coalface” of climate change (with unusual weather patterns during monsoon season even disrupting filming for ‘Amma’).
Meanwhile, the prominence of South Asians at the top of UK politics has prompted a fresh discussion about heterogeneity within the community. British Bangladeshis have the highest poverty rate of any ethnic group in the UK and were most at risk of dying from Covid-19. “Rishi Sunak absolutely doesn’t speak to someone of Bangladeshi heritage living in a council house and on benefits, like my mum was,” Shayek says.
He adds that the British Bangladeshi community experience severe digital poverty and he hopes ‘Amma’ will provide an opportunity for older members of the community to engage with VR.
“The idea of using technology really came about because I felt like there was a real need for an exchange of some sort. If people are sharing their stories, if we’re asking people to relive their trauma for us, we should give them something in return: providing access to a technology that otherwise they might not access or come across was really important.”
‘Amma’ is a hybrid piece. The audience enters a set dressed to resemble a British Bangladeshi woman’s council flat. Putting on a VR headset allows them to enter a story beginning in a similar flat and travelling through time and space to experience wartime Bangladesh. The VR element was created with the National Theatre Studios.
The attraction of VR is usually cited as its immersive potential, compared with ‘flat’ media. Theatre is already a relatively immersive medium, however, so why does ‘Amma’ combine them? Shayek points to his wish to create a multisensory multimedia experience – senses such as taste and smell are also stimulated – which plays with the permeability between reality and technology. He also points to the ability of VR to combine advantages of both theatre (immersivity) and film (transitions between locations, which cannot be achieved in quite the same way live).
“What you still get is a really gorgeous set of scenes which allow you to feel like you’re in Bangladesh, right in the middle of it, which I think would be nigh on impossible to achieve in a theatre. That’s the beauty of VR.”
Amma is at the Tara Theatre, London SW18, to 17 December. Details at taratheatre.com.
Weighty and compelling, despite a few soapy moments
‘Amma’ is an immersive show from beginning to end. The audience starts by stepping into the auditorium, the stage transformed into the sitting room of an archetypal British Bangladeshi woman (this can be said to be a certain success from the noises of bemused recognition from the largely South Asian audience; that rug, that table, that cabinet, precisely match the items in the homes of their mothers and grandmothers). Once the audience have made themselves at home within the set, there is a short film introducing the history of migration from Bangladesh to the UK, after which they put on their VR headsets.
The VR experience is divided between two sections: scenes set in the 21st century in a flat in London, and scenes set during the War of Independence in Bangladesh.
The modern-day scenes, which follow the unravelling of a mother-daughter relationship, feel stilted and soapy. There are certain moments, however – such as the daughter’s moment of recognition of her failure to talk with her mother about her harrowing experience of the war – which land with real weight and authenticity. The scenes set in Bangladesh – which feature the mother’s narration as she remembers her lover, her family, and the destruction and abject horror of the war – are far more compelling, both visually and narratively.
The VR section is restricted somewhat by the inchoate state of VR filmmaking and particularly by the need for the 360° camera to remain stationary. There is, however, one beautiful scene which bypasses these restrictions, placing the camera on a boat drifting down a river while the mother reflects on the life she is leaving behind in Bangladesh.
‘Amma’ does not quite live up to the worthiness of its production (for example, its establishment of an archive of women’s testimony about the war collected for the production). However, in combining immersive theatre and VR, it makes bold and effective use of the medium and delivers some moments which do justice to the women whose stories inspired it.
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