Waleed Akhtar

Q. Tell us more about the story behind Wipers. 
Wipers is the story of four soldiers at the first battle of Ypres in WW1, mainly focusing on the untold stories of the vast number of South Asian soldiers that were involved in the battle. It’s set in a barn off the front-line where these four men are hauled up.

Q. What made you want to get involved in the production? What excited you the most about the script?
The subject matter was the first thing that attracted me to the piece, and I’m not going to lie the chance to play a soldier was also really enticing. Knowing it was being written by Ishy Din, whose visceral and unique writing style I’m a big fan of, also meant that I knew it was going to be something special.

Q. Tell us more about the character you play.
I play Ayub, the new recruit and the greenest of all the soldiers, who has yet to be tested in combat and has to learn to live by his ideals in the reality of a war zone. And he gets some amazing one liners.

Q. Does it feel good to be back on the stage as opposed to doing films? Which do you enjoy more?
I love being on stage and I enjoy working on screen too, so it’s great to get to do both. Having a mix keeps things interesting so it’s difficult to choose, but there is nothing like the buzz of being on stage and having the audience there in front of you. Getting to live in the character’s arch and finding something new every night is really great.

Q. So what’s it like working with a writer and director to bring the character to life on stage? 
This has been a really collaborative new writing process; both Ishy and Suba (the director) have been really great in listening to our thoughts and ideas about the characters. It’s always felt like a safe space to do or try anything, which is really important.

Q. I know you write and make films too. Is it hard to take a step back and let someone else be in charge of how a character should be portrayed?
No – it’s brilliant to have a great director and writer in place. It means that some of the pressure is off and you can focus solely on your character, while they maintain the bigger picture. Again it’s been a really supportive environment, so the decisions I’ve made for the character have always felt really rooted and organic, rather than being dictated by someone else.

Q. What’s been the most challenging thing for you working on this project?
Having to cook and eat so much dahl on stage, not to mention the uniforms!

Q. I know you’ve also worked with local youngsters on this production. Did you have much involvement with them in terms of informal mentoring or coaching them through a scene?
Curve’s Young Company wrote and performed response pieces to the show, on the theme of conflict, led by the great spoken word artist, John Berkavitch.  They performed these at the war memorial in Victoria Park in Leicester, and the rest of the cast and I read poems alongside them. They’ve also been in and out of rehearsals for Wipers, but I would love to do more with them. The wealth of talent was amazing; definitely some stars of the future.

Q. It’s rare that we see war hero stories about people of colour. Do you think it’s important for us to celebrate these more than they are? Why do you think these remain hidden stories?
Definitely – this is part of our history as both Asians and Britons. Through this play I’ve learnt more about my own family links to the British army – my grandfather was a soldier who fought in the war. I feel part of the reason these stories remain hidden is that people of colour need to set the agenda for the stories being told about them, rather than being dictated form outside, and hopefully this is beginning.

Q. There’s been a huge push for TV to be more inclusive and give equal opportunity to BME actors. What’s your experience been as a young actor and how do you hope things will change?
I’m positive that things are changing. There are still many hurdles to jump, but I think the industry is waking up to the need to be inclusive and actually reflect the world around them.

Wipers is on at Curve Leicester and runs til April 23.

Watch the official trailer below: