Two Billion Beats Two Billion Beats, Orange Tree Theatre

Sonali Bhattacharyya’s new play packs a punch for equality, finds Katherine Connelly

The revolutionary playwright Bertolt Brecht imagined great theatre like a boxing match. Instead of being passive consumers, the audience become active, critical participants taking sides in the drama unfolding in front of them. 

In Two Billion Beats, a new play by award-winning playwright Sonali Bhattacharyya, the boxing matches are essays written by idealistic Sixth Form student Asha.  

In the ring are her mum’s hero, Gandhi, and her teacher’s heroine, Emmeline Pankhurst. But Asha finds herself squaring up against them.  

Asha has discovered historical figures who refused to accept the limitations imposed on the struggles for Indian independence and women’s suffrage by those campaigns’ famous leaders.  

Asha is inspired by B. R. Ambedkar who challenged Gandhi’s refusal to make destruction of the caste system a part of the independence struggle. Then she finds out about Sylvia Pankhurst who championed the rights of working women and opposed Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, her own mother and older sister, as they became vociferously jingoistic during the First World War.  

As Asha takes sides in these historical battles, they inform how she sees the problems of the present. Those problems range from bullies taking money from her younger sister Bettina to the devastating effects of Islamophobia over two decades after the start of the ‘war on terror’.  

But, like Sylvia Pankhurst, Asha discovers that standing up for her principles is fraught with dilemmas and causes friction in her relationships – including with her mum and sister.  

Two Billion Beats is at once the story of two British Asian sisters at school in Leicester and an account of the struggles that transformed the twentieth century. Bhattacharyya’s play shows what the debates in those struggles meant and why our interpretation of them matters as we strive to change the present. It is clever, witty, radical and true. 

Beautifully and compellingly performed by Safiyya Ingar (Asha) and Anoushka Chadha (Bettina), this play takes young people and their ideas seriously. As someone who, like Asha, first discovered the suffragettes while at school, I found this play convincing and very moving. 

Go and see this play! 

Two Billion Beats by Sonali Bhattacharyya and directed by Nimmo Ismail runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 5 March.

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.

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