The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs Autumn 2013
In the partitioned and disputed region of Kashmir in the north of the Indian subcontinent, many in the largely Muslim population, particularly among the young, feel like Palestinians today, Africans in apartheid South Africa or Irish a century ago, second-class citizens in their own country oppressed by an occupying military.
It helps to know that before coming in to Abhishek Majumdar's new drama, or else the first half-hour or more will be a steep learning curve for Western audiences, who must sort out where we are and who's who in the evident dispute while getting to know the characters and their specific stories.
Mujamdar focusses on two figures who are trying not to get involved in the rebellious and anti-Indian passions that surround them.
Bilal is a football-mad young man whose only interest is in being selected for a team that will take him and his sister to Europe or Brazil and away from all this, while Baig is a psychiatrist weary of treating the shellshocked among both oppressors and oppressed. Both will be drawn into the political events, with tragic results.
In a mode that undoubtedly enriches the play for those familiar with the background and immersed in the culture, but that adds a further hurdle for Western audiences, Mujamdar clothes this story in layers of fable, myth and religious references.
We are asked not only to absorb the geopolitical situation quickly, but also to comprehend the extended fairytale-like fable with which the play opens and keep it in mind throughout, appreciating its application to the characters and incidents of the play; to grasp the religious and cultural rules driving some plot developments; and, as nonrealistic characters appear and interact with the others, to make and understand the implications of the theological distinction between souls, ghosts and djinns.
For many in the Royal Court audiences the result will be that what might have been a taut and effective political drama is overextended, weakening its power, and all but hidden behind the veils of cultural contexts we can only vaguely appreciate.
Director Richard Twyman, clearly attempting to evoke the traditional and mystical overtones in his staging, isn't really able to guide the audience toward clarity, while the performances of Danny Ashok as Bilal, Vincent Ebrahim as Baig and the rest of the cast are strongest when they are most simply operating on the realistic level and weakest when they have to evoke or interact with the supernatural.
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