Interview With…  Sonali Bhattacharyya

The playwright chatted to us about being part of the Orange Tree Theatre’s Inside/Outside series.

(c) Helen Murray

Thanks so much for talking to me. Could you tell me more about the play you have written for Inside/Outside? Two Billion Beats is about two teenage sisters, Asha and Bettina, starting to
understand one another properly for the first time as they grapple with racism and injustice in their lives. And a hamster!

How did the idea for the play come about? Guy Jones at the Orange Tree gave all of the writers for the project a
provocation – ‘Inside’ or ‘Outside’. I was instinctively drawn to Outside as a starting point – it made me think of being an outsider, and more specifically the formative moment in every marginalised person’s life where we realise our position in society is questioned and we’ll need to fight to be included and recognised and heard. The character of Asha grew from there, and then her relationship with her little sister, Bettina. Asha is in detention at college, and has been told to clean graffiti from the gates as a punishment. Bettina is pestering Asha for a favour, knowing Asha has no choice but to listen to her. Bettina is apparently unaware of the inner turmoil Asha is experiencing about the reasons she’s been put on detention, but we start to realise the bond between them is stronger than Asha thinks.

How does it feel that your play is being staged? So exciting! Like all of us who work in theatre, especially freelancers, I’ve been anxious about the future of our industry and my place in it. It means a lot to me that the Orange Tree has invited me to be part of this project to mark their reopening. It’s such a wonderful venue, and I’m really pleased that one small, hopeful thing to come out of the pandemic is the opening up of spaces
like the Orange Tree to bigger audiences via streaming. I think the warmth and intimacy of the Orange Tree will translate beautifully to people watching from their homes.

What are you most looking forward to about seeing your work being staged? Seeing Zainab and Ashna bring my words to life. I’m so pleased to be working with them both, they’re brilliant actors. I’ve sat in on and zoomed into rehearsals a couple of times already and the energy and insight they’ve brought to the characters is really exciting. Georgia Green is an incredibly talented, thoughtful and inquisitive director, and I can’t wait to see how she’s interpreted the text and created Asha and Bettina’s world. My parents are in Leicester (which has been in lockdown since the start of the pandemic, shockingly), so I’m really pleased they’ll be able to see the play online.

What have you personally missed about being able to go to the theatre? The chance to be transported to different worlds, and the chance to both share the collective experience of watching a play and be a faceless person in the crowd. And of course the social element of seeing a show. Rushing to meet a friend in the bar beforehand, the shared excitement of seeing something new. I avoid reading about a play before I go to see it, reviews or publicity if I can help it. I love to have as few expectations as possible – the surprise and mystery of a new play is a big part of the wonder for me. But afterwards I love to pick through a show with friends and hear what we all made of it. Watching the work of other writers is such a key part of helping me reflect on and scrutinise my own work. I miss that symbiosis. That’s what culture is, right? An ongoing conversation between all of us about what it means to be human. Things are so precarious and scary right now. That’s more important than ever.

By Emma Clarendon

Outside will be live-streamed from the 15th to the 17th April. To book tickets visit:

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