“Please God, help me not to make a complete fool of myself,”
Wipers – a garbled mispronunciation of Ypres – is a hugely fascinating piece of writing, co-produced by Leicester’s Curve, Watford Palace and Coventry’s Belgrade theatres and pleasingly playing in all three cities. For it is inspired by the real-life story of Khuddadad Khan, the first South Asian soldier to be awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery in the First World War, where no less than a million South Asian soldiers were active on the battlefield, previously relegated to a footnote in history but rightfully brought to our attention here.
Wounded by an attack in the first battle of Ypres that killed most if not all around him, Khan’s resilience held off enemy fire to long enough to protect the remnants of the British forces, among them the four soldiers of this play. Seeking refuge in a barn, they await hoped-for reinforcements, the noises of (the unseen) Khan’s weapon periodically discharging echoing around as they cleave together over a long night. But there’s not just four men, they’re a British officer and three Indian soldiers, with all the tension and torque that brings.
So issues of class structure, both in the UK and on the subcontinent, come into play in the various interactions of the quartet, notions of food and family being touched on beautifully too, over the 10 hours of their wait. Contrasting levels of education and experience give some common ground and others reasons to grudge, and overshadowing it all is the spectre of colonialism and what that means in practical terms for all four of them and what they have to give of their lives. The play may take its time to get going but once fully in its swing, it is delicately powerful and ultimately moving.
It is superbly acted by all concerned, under Suba Das’ gently firm direction. Jassa Ahluwalia’s scared young officer connects wonderfully with Waleed Akhtar’s educated Ayub over an amusing shared hatred but suffers a real disconnect when the subject of empire is raised. Sartaj Garewal’s AD proves a mean cook with his dal and a sensitive father with his letter-writing and Simon Rivers’ complex Sadiq is strong as he bristles under command. A great example of theatre giving us stories that might otherwise have remained hidden.