How far have we really come in the struggle for gender equality? That’s the question UNSUNG, a modern day adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Punishment” asks in its haunting social drama about honor-based violence. Fringebiscuit caught up with playwright Ayndrilla Singharay to discuss her debut at the Edinburgh Fringe, the cultural clash of being an Indian in Britain and the need for men and women to speak up about gender equality.
What’s the story about?
Ayndrilla: The short story by Tagore was about two brothers and their wives who live in a poor Indian village and the conflict that ensues between them when an act of violence occurs in the home. With UNSUNG, I transplanted that story and brought it to a British-Asian family in modern-day London where a similar story unfolds. I see Tagore as a very visionary and progressive writer and it’s poignant to think the stories he wrote a century ago could still happen today.
It sounds very compelling. Did the brothers themselves grow up in India or Britain?
Ayndrilla: Both of the brothers grew up in Britain, as well as Joy, the younger brother’s wife. The second wife Meg, grew up in India, and there are differences that stem between her and the older brother, her husband, because of it. At the women’s refuge center I work with, ASHA, I’ve heard a lot of stories from South Asian women who spoke about the tensions they had with their British-Asian husband who didn’t want to marry them.
So the characters had an arranged marriage?
Ayndrilla: Exactly, and between Rana, the older brother, and Meg, there’s marital strain in her struggle to assimilate. What sometimes happens with these South Asian women is that their husbands aggressively insist that they behave more Western, speak in a better accent, that sort of thing. Rana and his younger Brother, Ash, lost their parents a while ago and they hold their father’s values very dear to them. Rana thinks he’s done his duty by marrying Meg, but he feels his wife is so different from him and feels resentment. With that resentment, often follows abuse.
How has the feedback been from the South Asian community and women who have experienced the setting of the play?
Ayndrilla: My hope was that when anyone who has lived the story of the play would be that they recognize it, which is thankfully some of the feedback I’ve gotten so far. They tell me it’s real. There was one woman who came all the way from Birmingham to see our run in London and she told us “I’ve went through this. This was my life and people need to hear about it.”
That’s a hell of a review.
Ayndrilla: Yes, it was better feedback than a review could give! I’ve really strived for authenticity because I feel there’s a lot of finger-pointing going on in this country where we’re blaming other cultures for bringing in this kind of violence, but we can’t just play the “We’ve got it right” card. We set up top-down laws like the recent anti-forced marriage laws in England to conserve “British values” but we don’t provide enough resources for the women who need refuge from domestic violence. We still have Page Three models in our family newspapers. How can we say that we are the authority on gender equality?
How do you manage to create a show that has a strong social message, but is still entertaining?
Ayndrilla: The show does deal with heavy themes, but it’s not a dead serious show. It’s a funny family drama, which is hard to hard to market along with its serious message. Sometimes I worry that when I tell people the show is about gender-based violence it’ll seem preachy, but it really isn’t. The show is funny, it’s warm, it’s the tale of a family trying to stick together. Violence doesn’t define a person nor does it define a family. There’s a lightness within the everyday lives of these characters.
What would you want the audience to take away from the show?
Ayndrilla: I hope the audience would take away the idea that we’re all responsible for the decisions we make and to be more a little bit more aware about who’s making sacrifices and who’s benefitting from them. Keeping that question in mind, we’ll all be able to challenge inequality when we see it.
UNSUNG, C Nova, Aug 7-11, 13-25