Wednesday 4th May 2022 at Leeds Playhouse.
In Zia Ahmed’s layered and insightful play, Ella and Haseeb meet by chance and are soon smitten, but their happy bubble of two is quickly compromised by external forces as they try to overcome cultural differences.
Eva Scott and Usman Nawaz make a wholly endearing and likeable pairing. Scott’s Ella is the magnetic, hip type who masks self-consciousness with flippancy or combative directness but also showers others with sincere affection. She’s an optimist, but she’s also more than a little naive. Nawaz’s Haseeb is a quieter force with an easy-going nature which in turn masks his growing unease and upset; selfless and thoughtful, he goes out of his way to make her happy in small, meaningful ways. The dynamic between them is warm and fun with a shared, banter-led sense of humour. But even their humour and closeness can’t protect them from the problems they face.
Scenes are a combination of snapshots played in real time and narration of past events spoken in canon – often dipping into lyrical, confessional moments of outpoured frustration. The scenes cleverly fragmented in retrospect give us two sides to various past scenarios. Both may be at a party, but they’re essentially at very different parties as one faces familiarity and fun while the other faces racial profiling and frustration. The native northerner is growing tired of the non-stop nature of London; the Londoner is happy to at least try to smile at strangers up north… Visits to family homes throw up all kinds of polar reactions – often unbeknownst to them. And this sense of being together-but-separate creates the inevitable elephant in the room.
Ahmed’s writing is not just enlightening or powerful – it’s generous, playful and surprisingly light of step considering some of the subject matter. At times it’s also intense and accosting without ever alienating, inviting reflection and pulling us out of any naivety we may have. The big issues are not simply clumsily spotlit, they grow from subtle missed opportunities or wilful ignorance of the little things, and it’s really through those key moments of vulnerability that we are most interrogated – would we have done a better job of supporting the other? Are they right to feel the wronged party at this point? Which of their friends or families would have triggered us into the necessary defence? So we’re rooting for this likeable pair and cringing for them and silently willing them to make the decisions we think they should make – only to question those instincts a few moments later, and that’s the beauty of this work.
Director Sameena Hussain approaches the play with vision, blending the literal with the abstract through movement and a sense of swift but credible progression. Of course the proverbial elephant becomes a stronger force as time goes on and the layers of the unspoken build – why not? Of course busy modern lives have us dashing about in a never ending cycle of “must dash, talk later”. And that weightiness is picked up by Warda Abbasi’s set design, which features something of a symbolic tower structure of momentos providing a poignant signpost of what can be built but also lost between two people. The set essentially consists of building blocks which can be re-purposed at will but flanked by more concrete elements. The space is what we will or understand it to be based on circumstances, and that feels like a fitting backdrop to this fight for survival.
This is also a play which often goes its own way rather than leaning on conventional tropes. We see emotional strain take up physical space. Our actors are tactile and affectionate but never need kiss on stage, instead narrating their intimacy to us alongside pacy, engaging narration of events. We don’t need shouting or screaming matches to understand the intensity of emotions at work – and central performances communicate nuance and tension without resorting to those well-trodden avenues of how to loudly depict a troubled relationship on stage. In many ways, the measured nature of exchanges makes them all the more poignant, reminding us constantly that their frustrations are rooted elsewhere, but the damage lands between them.
Zia Ahmed’s I Wanna Be Yours convincingly lays bare the vulnerabilities of relationships but also explores the specific challenges of a relationship doing its best to navigate the choppy waters of very different backgrounds and starkly different lived experiences. Funny, warm-hearted and contemplative of our complex world, it’s certainly worth a trip.
I Wanna Be Yours plays Leeds Playhouse until May 14th 2022 and you can find your tickets here.