December 12 2014
Three leading actors from the play ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ talk about the challenges of their characters in what is a very fine production, but the story still seems a little unwieldy…
SHOULD a play touch you cerebrally or emotionally?
Ideally both, but there are occasions when one gets compromised for the other. The danger is creating something that appeals neither to the intellect or the heart.
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” which returns to the National Theatre today (Friday, December 12) after a short break, is a stimulating work but falls short of being an emotionally searing piece of theatre.
Many have already said it is a powerful work, much in line with the book of the same name by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Katherine Boo.
She was presented with both the US National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2012, for her non-fiction work on the slum-dwellers of Annawadi, a rough settlement close to the international airport in Mumbai.
Anila Dhami, who wrote one of the earliest pieces on the play for www.asianculturevulture.com and saw it in rehearsal, praised it for effectively converting the stage into a slum.
No disagreement there, the set production is superb and the acting is also of the highest quality and yet…and yet…
Perhaps its length and structure disqualify from it unwavering praise but there are few productions that can match its scope or insight into human behaviour at its rawest. All that makes it still worth seeing.
The subject matter – a group of different and diverging slum dwellers caught up in the crash of the global economy and trying to eke out an existence, would suggest a rich potential for emotional engagement, but somewhere in the first half, it loses something.
There are too many characters, too many competing voices and the effect is a little overwhelming. It was a little hard to follow in plot terms too, which didn’t help.
Despite all this, the second half is tighter and consequently, more compelling and it really throws into sharp relief what celebrated playwright David Hare has done overall, adapting Boo’s book.
He brings theses slum dwellers right into our lives in the Olivier Theatre – makes them not just believable but likeable – at least at some level, and capable of eliciting our sympathy and concern about their fate.
Among the most memorable – and not just because they talked to www.asianculturevulture.com – are Fatima, played by Thusitha Jayasundera and Asha, reprised by Stephanie Street.
Both are exceptional in what is a very strong cast that includes the very experienced, such as Meera Syal and a group of young upcoming talents who have a chance to shine too.
It is around Fatima that the play’s narrative flows.
Disabled, or ‘crippled’, she hobbles around, undeterred and defiant, displaying her own sense of strength, vigour and valour.
Her personal relations are compromised – a mother, her only source of survival is pleasing some men with sexual favours.
It disgusts the Husain family – prosperous, (by Annawadi standards) diligent and looking to get on and move up.
A neighbourly dispute spirals out of all control and leads to the Husains being charged with serious crimes.
Boo shared video footage of the real life people with cast members but there was nothing for Jayadsundera to clasp there.
“I got the feeling that Katherine didn’t have much of a chance to get to know her – it was all the stories that she inspired.
“She (Katherine) did say something that really struck me – and it was the way that Fatima came to her attention, and that was because her girls were so severely neglected and this caused a lot of consternation,” explained Jayasundera.
What Hare does so well is that he makes these people and their choices real – and while we can pontificate about the morality of these folks, his point is they have to find a way of living and it may not be pretty or desirable on our terms or our values – but at least they can put food on a table (or well, to their mouths) without physically harming anyone else.
“It all boils down to the struggle to survive. It’s amazing how far removed we are from actual life and death, it’s not a day to day consideration (in contrast to how they live).
“To me the really interesting thing is that being virtuous is actually a privilege and only a few people can afford to do it.
“Following a line of morality gets you killed or banged up in prison (as we see in the play), you can’t do the right thing, you have to swim with the flow, that is very real,” Jayasundera stated.
Perhaps that is no better embodied than in the character of Asha, played by Street.
Initially Asha seems benign, smart, efficient, even admirable – she is the only woman slum ‘fixer’ in Mumbai.
A party apparatchik, she is well connected and can get things done…but only if you pay (bribe) her.
It soon becomes apparent she too has made compromises, despite laudably putting her own daughter Manju (Anjana Vasan) through school to become the first ever college graduate of Annawadi, there is an all mighty bust-up between mother and daughter, a clash between two warring factions of reason.
“I am not saying she’s like Iago in ‘Othello’ but it’s similar,” pointed out Street. “She’s the sort of baddie woman, the only female slumlord in Mumbai. She’s the most powerful person in Annawadi, she’s the go-to woman, the liaison between the police, politicians and local population. She occupies a very interesting position of power, and has a power of influence, both upwards and downwards with the overcity (Mumbai) and undercity (Annawadi).”
Yet Manju, who is studying English and rather incongruously asking her mother about Virginia Woolf and “Mrs Dalloway”, is appalled by the moral choices her mother has made.
“No human being would ever do things thinking they’re doing it from a position of compromise – you always do it absolutely, so their morals may not be yours or mine but within her frame of reference they are absolute,” argued Street. And one may say, right…
In one of the most memorable scenes there is a clash between Asha and another mother (Laxmi Chinnu, played by Bharti Patel) whose daughter Meena (Anneika Rose) is a friend of Asha’s. Tragedy has struck and mother Chinu blames Asha and her ideas (and education) for the terrible affair.
“It’s like you (Manju) have opened her (Meenu’s) eyes and to what…? A life she cannot have – that is drama in its purest form,” described Street.
Chook Sibtain represents another wily, scheming, plotting presence in Annwadi – local police officer, Sub inspector Shankar Yeram, also known as ‘Fishlips’.
Sibtain summarised his character well and gave a succinct overview of one of the play’s central themes.
He told www.asianculturevulture.com: “He’s very corrupt and he’s getting bribes from people but he’s also living in a system where he’s also probably paying bribes and he’s part of a house of cards, and it’s a tangled web of deceit and so if he doesn’t play ball, the house of cards comes down – he’s a product of the system – everyone’ s trying to elevate themselves from the slum.”
Almost by any means necessary too – the inspector is clearly no paragon of virtue but like every other character the prospects of advancement through conventional, or completely lawful, routes are blocked or unattainable (and it has nothing to do with merit).
A bribe here or there will help to educate another child – and he himself a graduate understands the ‘system’ has stifled him and the inhabitants of Annawadi.
“The biggest challenge was that he (the Inspector) was written in a very sadistic manner, and he is very brutal. The challenge was to find some kind of redeeming feature within him and to give him more dimensions and that he was doing all this for a reason – other than being a brute. He was just caught up in this.”
For Sibtain playing the part has had a personal effect on him and he remembered the time he travelled to Mumbai for the first time to work on a film.
“The poverty was extraordinary, I’d never seen anything like it, I’d been to South America but this was something else.
“I’d just got off the plane and was in this taxi. I threw money out of the window (to the begging children). The taxi driver was furious. The car was rocking within two minutes.”
He learnt his lesson, next time, he would give any money discreetly so as not to attract the hordes. But the experience has connected back to his professional one on stage.
“I’d like to give money to a charity that helps slum children, I am just an actor working on the South Bank but you do immerse yourself in that world and you do get a sense of abject poverty and destitution, it’s not even one of the worst slums – it’s doing well and people aspire.”
Main picture: Mahadeo Waghekar (Sartej Grewal), Asha Waghekar (Stephanie Street) and Rahul Waghekar (Gavi Singh Chera)
All pictures: Richard Hubert Smith
Behind the Beautiful Forevers continues until April 13 2015.
Special, In Context: Representing India, March 11, 2-5pm, Clore Learning Centre.
For more information and booking please see: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/behind-the-beautiful-forevers