Mistaken …. Annie Besant In India – April 2007

Annie Besant

Image via Wikipedia


By: Rukhsana Ahmad

Directed by: Chris Banfield

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th April 2007

This was only the second performance of this play, and it became clear early on that a fair bit of work is still needed, even once the performances bed down. The subject is interesting, but the play itself lacks some coherence, and could do with more humour. The performances came across as lacking confidence for the most part, but there was still enough enjoyable material to suggest that, with revision, this could become a very watchable play.

The action is basically split into two sections, covering Annie’s experiences in India in 1916 and then in 1919, with some later events tacked on. Given that she seems to be largely forgotten now, it might have been helpful to have filled in her background more, such as her involvement in the match workers strike, and her relationship with her husband and children. However, we still get to see some momentous occasions, such as meetings with Ghandi, and her support of the young man who became Krishnamurti. With such a rich life, the problem must be what to concentrate on so that the audience can get home before midnight!

The author uses a narrator, or storyteller, to provide us with a structure. She reflects back to her time with Annie Besant (a fictional storyline), and this gives us a window on the past. (This narrator is played by two women – the storyteller who stayed to one side and linked some of the scenes, and the young woman who enters the play and meets Annie in person.) We see Annie as an already established figure within Theosophy and the Indian Home Rule movement. She regards herself as Indian, and is convinced that India’s future lies in a close relationship with Britain – Home Rule within a Commonwealth, rather than Independence. We see her increasing isolation as she disagrees more and more with the choices made by the other Indian leaders, such as Ghandi and Nehru. And we also see Krishnamurti’s split from the Theosophical Society, which she initially rejects, but then comes to accept – why identify someone as special, gifted, and destined to lead people spiritually, then not trust his choices? While he travels the world, teaching, she languishes back in India, waiting for his return, and finally dies in 1933.

The main problem I found was purely technical – many of the cast did not deliver their lines clearly enough. Reading the play text, I suspect I lost about half of what was going on – it is so important for actors to project clearly. This was not true of everyone – on the whole I heard Annie fairly well throughout, and Krishna was usually clear, but the others needed to become stronger in their delivery – the storyteller was almost conversational in volume, and as she was located in the far corner of the stage, that made it very hard to hear her.

Secondly, there were some confusing aspects of the play. In one scene, after Annie is involved in inciting those attending a rally to riot, we see her on the ground, where Krishna finds her. She seems to be confused, rambling, doesn’t know who Krishna is, etc. Shortly afterwards, she’s steered into a meeting with the Governor of Madras, to be sent to prison as a terrorist (there is a war on, after all), and she seems clear and focused. I couldn’t easily see how these scenes related to one another. Had she made a remarkable recovery? Was she losing her mind? Why did Krishna appear to be taking her home and then leave her? Was it a dream? There was too much confusion in what was meant, so although it was possible to ignore that bit and move on with the rest of the action, it left a niggling doubt about how the information was being presented, especially in terms of the timeline.

In the final scene, after Annie’s death, as the storyteller and her character in the play are discussing the event, they express regret at not telling her the truth. What truth? I assumed it was to do with Krishnamurti not coming back, but it’s not clear, and left me with an unfinished feeling at the end.

The other main problem I experienced was the dullness of the piece. There is one lovely piece of humour, when Sidra, the character of the storyteller, starts to explain a spiritual term to Krishna’s father, and he explodes with anger, complaining that “Every second person thinks he’s a swami!” It got across the situation much better than several pages of exposition. Unfortunately, this was the only laugh all evening, and the whole piece felt rather dreary and worthy, like a drama-documentary. More humour would make it more accessible, especially as truly spiritual people are usually full of humour, in my experience.

Mind you, Annie herself comes across as a dour campaigner, so perhaps this play is simply reflecting her personality accurately. I was left at the end not knowing whether the play was a celebration of the life of an amazing woman who influenced Indian political thought and nurtured its educational system, but who ultimately fell into disrepute and became a forgotten heroine, or whether it was a critique of her work, pointing out her mistakes, while trying to remember her in some way. The title suggests the latter, though the elements of the play don’t entirely support that conclusion.

All in all, I was happy enough that I’d seen it, and would be willing to see it again, once the initial run has sorted out the performance issues.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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