Theatre review: I Wanna Be Yours, MTC

The debut play by UK slam poetry champion Zia Ahmed is let down by trivial metaphors, bland characters and a relentless pace.

I Wanna Be Yours opens with the image of water running down a plughole, because in the north it runs one way and in the south it runs the other, and because Haseeb (Oz Malik) is a North London Pakistani and Ella (Eleanor Barkla) a South London white girl and therefore their water drains differently. It’s the first in a series of trivial metaphors employed by London-based slam poet and playwright Zia Ahmed in this, his debut play, now imported and staged by the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC).

For the MTC, the choice seems a curious one. Removed from its original London context, much of I Wanna Be Yours feels distant, almost irrelevant. Ahmed may retort that the play’s themes – intercultural love, racism’s subtler manifestations, becoming – are universal. But in this instance we’re offered not an exploration of generalities but a specific case study, packed into a scattershot sequence of brief scenes with a slam-poet-lite idiolect that challenges the audience to find their own way into the text.

The scenes move quickly and the words move quicker. Though their accents are skilfully executed for the entirety of the play, Barkla and Malik deliver their lines with a deadening rote constancy, barely letting the other finish before beginning their response. As a result, their interactions feel distractingly scripted. Nothing breathes, nothing lands. It’s all too theatricalised, though paradoxically the play is devoid of any other trace of theatricality ­– no spectacle, no grandeur, no interesting set choices and no lyrical ambiguity. The costumes are perfectly chosen, but beyond this the play lacks cunning craftsmanship.

If the play is going not for spectacle but for intimacy, then the relentless pace of the scene changes kills any opportunity for a quiet scene to develop into a crescendo. I Wanna Be Yours sacrifices dynamism for the sake of advancing plot.

However, it is worth noting that, in spite of the numerous scenes, Ahmed is skilful enough to keep the development of Haseeb and Ella’s relationship clearly appreciable to the audience – by no means an easy achievement. But it’s a relationship without depth, both characters reduced to their race and upbringing, nothing more. We scarcely believe the romance is real at all, and there is not an ounce of sexual tension anywhere in the entire 85-minute runtime, resulting in utterly bland characters.

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‘There are certain theatre groups that think all drama is conflict, it’s all extremes,’ said Ahmed in an interview for The Age last week. ‘I was more interested in the subtle micro-aggressions, whether that’s in relation to race, gender or class.’ No surprise, then, that what he serves up, and what director Tasmin Hossain propagates, is ultimately a poor facsimile of West Side Story cloaked in contemporary language, with politics inoffensive enough to bore you senseless and shallow enough to insult your intelligence.

Don’t believe me? Let’s go back to the symbols. The water draining is just the beginning. Later, Haseeb finds a small toy elephant in Ella’s bedroom, a keepsake from her childhood which, as their relationship grows and bends in unforeseen ways, becomes a larger and larger presence in their lives. Eventually it takes over their consciences, refusing to leave them alone. Yes, you guessed it: it’s the elephant in the room. If that’s not enough to put you off, I can only say that I warned you.

I Wanna Be Yours
A Melbourne Theatre Company production
Writer: Zia Ahmed
Director: Tasnim Hossain
Set and Costume Designer: Kat Chan
Lighting Designer: Rachel Lee
Composition and Sound Design: Mufeez Al Haq
Voice and Dialect Coach: Geraldine Cook-Dafner
Dialect Coach (UK): Gurkiran Kaur
Movement Consultant: Jonathan Homsey
Intimacy Coordinator: Isabella Vadiveloo
Cast: Oz Malik, Eleanor Barkla

Southbank Theatre, Melbourne
11-27 May 2023

Elroy Rosenberg is an art critic and journalist.