As a teenager – when she wasn’t making plays – Milli Bhatia often went out raving. And the time on the dancefloor still influences how one of London’s most exciting directing talents makes work for the stage. “You go to the theatre to be thrilled and shaken,” she says. “I want to feel exhilarated and wakened, like I do when I go raving.” Though she adds with a smile that when going out to clubs these days, “raving doesn’t feel like the right word anymore”.
Later this year, Bhatia will take her breakout production of Jasmine Lee Jones’s hit play seven methods of killing kylie jenner (the title is styled in lower case) to Sweden and then in 2023 on a tour of the US, but first she’s taking the helm on Sonali Bhattacharyya’s new play Chasing Hares, opening at the Young Vic next week. True to form, in an attempt to bring that visceral experience, she told her technical team, “Let’s give the audience a nosebleed.”
We speak on Zoom just as the production is going into technical rehearsal and the mood is exuberant. At one point Bhatia leaves the screen to ask for calm from the cast, whom we can hear outside. “There’s a lovely energy outside the door,” she smiles. “It’s just quite loud.”
Chasing Hares follows Prab, a factory worker in Kolkata who is asked to write for the local theatre troupe. Rather than produce a more traditional work, he uses the opportunity to expose the terrible conditions and child exploitation he sees in his working life, potentially risking his future to fight for change. “It’s about the precarity of work in West Bengal and here in the UK,” Bhatia says. “It has a cross-cultural conversation about workers’ rights. It’s about gig economy, about the working class. It’s about labour organising and culture.”
Meeting Bhattacharyya “was like meeting a weird extension of my brain, which is completely joyous”, Bhatia says. They first worked together on a reading of King Troll, Bhattacharyya’s work about the corrosive effect of the UK government’s Hostile Environment policy. And when the chance came to direct Chasing Hares, which won the Theatre Uncut Political Playwrighting Award and which Bhattacharyya described as a “love letter to organisers, activists and dreamers”, Bhatia’s response was, “F**k yeah!”
We’re talking after a summer of strike action in the UK, and that has fed into the play. “We talked about it a lot. A lot of industrial action across trade union movements. There’s a lot of conversation about the injustice of our society as both unfair and unsustainable… We all got f**ked by the train strikes during the second week of rehearsals. And we all got there really late,” she laughs. “But also stood in solidarity.”
In Chasing Hares, stories provide Prab with refuge. “There is a lot of brutality and darkness in this play and coming to it after the couple of years we’ve had, I think we all understand the need [to take] refuge in imagination.”
It made her think of the role of stories within her own family. “We don’t learn about the British Empire in schools in this country,” she says. “All my education about partition that rendered my grandfather a refugee came from the mouths of my grandparents. It was the only place that had documented it and that’s what this story is about.”
It’s also about how “art and stories are tools and vehicles for social change”. This is a strand that runs throughout Bhatia’s work: advocating for social causes, telling the stories of people who don’t often get to have a voice on stage, and expressing anger at existing power structures. When I ask if she makes activist theatre, she replies, “I’m an activist who makes theatre. I’m an activist and a director and there’s a lot of crossover. I don’t see them as separate things in my life.” She adds, “A lot of things that I bring to the rehearsal room I learnt in activist spaces. That’s how my politics lived in my process.”
Bhatia always loved stories and theatre growing up, and joined the National Youth Theatre in her teens. She is the daughter of actor Meera Syal and her first huband, journalist Shekhar Bhatia - “My mum took me to the theatre, my dad took me to the football.” She directed her first play at university and then another soon after, with both raising money to support women’s refuges. “My first two projects as a director were about addressing something I felt a deep anger and injustice about.”
Her work as a director – she is also a dramaturg, helping to shape plays with writers – includes Dismantle this Room at the Royal Court, an escape room show that asked how existing power structures could be dismantled; My White Best Friend, for which she and the playwright Rachel De-Lahay commissioned 10 writers of colour to write letters about racial tensions, micro-aggressions and emotional labour; and Lucy Kirkwood’s “howl” of protest Maryland, about the culture of violence against women, which Bhatia co-directed with the Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone and Lucy Morrison, and which has been adapted into a 30 minute TV film by the BBC, to be released this week.
“I’m interested in how we can awaken an audience and hold an audience in a conversation. I came to directing as it providing a space for me to address things I felt anger and injustice about,” Bhatia says.
“There’s a lot of anger in my work, but there’s also a lot of grief and a lot of hope,” she continues. “The industry doesn’t always welcome that from certain demographics. It has taken some unlearning to go, ‘I’m not going to shrink myself. I want to put it into my work’.”
She returns to the topic later in our conversation as she wants to acknowledge the generosity of artists who have championed her to help her to this point, including Featherstone, as well as the former head of the Bush Theatre, Madani Younis, and that theatre’s current artistic director, Lynette Linton.
Bhatia is now an associate director at the Court. Featherstone tells me that her impact on the organisation “is immense”. She continues, “Her detailed work, her integrity, her political ambition and, of course, her talent is exactly what British theatre needs,”
Later in the year, Bhatia will direct Jasmine Naziha Jones’s coming of age play Baghdaddy at the venue, and it was there that she first staged seven methods of killing kylie jenner, which became something of a theatrical phenomenon, first in 2019 and then last year, post-lockdown. The show was nominated for an Olivier award, and Lee Jones won a string of awards, including the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright.
“I knew when I read the first draft – which was not the play it became – I knew Jasmine had found something I’d never read or experienced before. I’m really lucky with the people I’ve worked with,” Bhatia says. “I knew the play would be a hit because I found it so profound, but I don’t think any of us were expecting what it would become.”
Seven methods explores race, activism, social media, queerness and cultural appropriation. It was called “sharp, furious and funny” by the Guardian, while the i said Bhatia’s production was “both thrillingly charged and meticulously controlled”.
Coming back to it after lockdown was a very different experience, Bhatia says. “One of my favourite authors is Arundhati Roy. She wrote an article talking about the pandemic in a way that really helped me re-interrogate seven methods and my work after that. She talked about the pandemic as a portal, an opportunity to imagine, deconstruct, rebuild. I think that’s important as something you bring to a story you want to tell, and how you tell them now. I thought about that a lot.”
Part of the play involves conjuring up the virtual world of social media on stage. Was she daunted? “No, I was really excited. What a gift for a director, what a theatrical challenge. I’ve never been drawn to quiet plays where people sit around drinking tea. I was utterly thrilled by the theatrical breadth of Jasmine’s imagination. And I had the best team around me to realise it. The artists I worked with were extraordinary.”
She adds, “I’ve only ever done new plays, because they can interrogate how they sit in the context of now, and what conversation they’ll have with an audience here and now.”
This is something of a moment, Bhatia says, for South Asian artists in the theatre. While she has known what it is like “to feel unwelcome in a theatre space… Young women of colour are often patronised and underestimated”, she wants to leave the conversation on a note of real positivity.
“I’m really excited by what is happening now. We’re seeing a real diversity of South Asian stories” appearing on our stages, she says. “At the Bush there’s Favour and previously there was Invisible, both written by South Asian writers. Waleed Akhtar’s play [The P Word] is on there next. There’s just been The Father and the Assassin at the National. Lotus Beauty was at Hampstead. Vinay Patel and Rabiah Hussain have new plays. I’m really excited about this time for us and I want to continue to see our diversity of stories. It feels like a really exciting moment for us, and I’m thrilled.”