The Black Album – August 2009

2/10

By Hanif Kureishi

Directed by Jatinder Verma

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 27th August 2009

I think I can best sum up this stage version of Hanif Kureshi’s novel with one succinct four-letter word. Dull. The only way I could really expand on that would be to repeat the word, several times. Fortunately, the seats in the Cottesloe were uncomfortable enough to keep me awake throughout the first half, so I can speak with some confidence as to the consistency of the dullness. Not even the Cottesloe seats could keep me totally alert for part two, but I got enough, with Steve’s input as well, to have a clear view of the production’s inadequacy.

How can this be, you may ask? Let me explain. The set was OK, a small room with two walls, opening wide from the back, each of which were used as screens before and during the performance. To begin with there were slogans, song titles, etc., then wallpaper and other furnishing images appeared which helped to create quick changes of scene. So far, so good.  The room had four doors, at least one window (the projections confused things a little) and a desk, sofa and chair. We could see the shadows of people knocking on the doors, and characters often used the front of the stage when they were walking outside. It all felt a bit rough and ready, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There was also music playing from time to time – not entirely to my taste, being a child of the sixties – but it was decent enough.

The story is set in the 1980s and begins with a young man, Shahid, heading off to college to get a qualification. His father is dead, his older brother is married, and his mother, possibly with the brother(?), runs the family’s travel agency business. There’s some nice humour to do with an over-protective mother sending her youngest away but that’s soon over and then we get to meet the different strata of society that young Shahid starts mixing with.

These include the overly rigid Muslims who want to mould him in their image, Shahid’s brother and sister-in-law (confusingly referred to as “aunt”) who are intent on enjoying the commercial opportunities and fleshpots offered by the West, the right-on female lecturer who beds Shahid and encourages him to think for himself, and her husband, the communistic lecturer who sees everything as an aspect of the class struggle. He’s going through a bad time because the opening up of the Eastern Bloc is revealing unpleasant truths about the former Communist regimes; he’s developing a stutter to compensate.

Not so much a coming-of-age piece, then, as a where-do-I-fit-in story with a state-of-the-nation setting. Shahid ultimately rejects the moral certainties of the religionists to stay with the lecturer, and the play ends with the two of them getting down to some serious nooky while his former Islamic brethren turn themselves into suicide bombers. When the bombs go off, the actors fall down and the walls collapse outwards, leaving the final image of a startled Shahid sitting up on the sofa trying to comprehend what’s just happened.

The final image was a good one, but sadly there was little else in the play to rejoice over. The funniest joke was probably the eating of the sacred pakora (it contained a message from god) but that had been so well signposted that it lost a lot of its impact. I had the feeling that we were meant to be laughing a lot more – nothing else could explain the less-than-two-dimensional characters and the turgid dialogue, which the actors often delivered as if they were reading off the back of a cereal packet. But either the humour just wasn’t there, or we, along with most of this audience, just weren’t getting it.

I don’t mean to criticise the actors either. Steve thought at first that they might have simply been miscast, but on the whole I think they were all doing their best with a very meagre script. Shereen Martineau, playing three female characters, probably got the most out of her parts, while I thought Alexander Andreou who played Riaz, the community’s political leader, also came across slightly better than the rest. The style of the production suggested a rollicking farce, or the Asian Marriage of Figaro we saw some time ago, while the dialogue just didn’t support that. There was one character, a kind of identikit skinhead drug dealer, who was a complete muddle, first supporting one side, then the other, but in a nod to My Beautiful Laundrette I guessed he was in a relationship with Shahid’s brother Chili. Homosexuality was hinted at, but not made explicit (unless I was dozing at that point). Anyway, the skinhead guy moved in a very choreographed way, which reminded me of the way they often play the clown role in comedies by the likes of Molière, but no one else really fitted with this style. I did like the fight scene in DeeDee’s flat, with Chili suddenly proving very good at dealing with attackers, but it didn’t make up for the remaining two hours of dross.

If we hadn’t known better, we would have thought this was some am-dram version of a very dated piece by a not very good writer, and while it still came across as very dated we know the rest isn’t true. I put the problems down to the script, Steve feels the director has a significant share of the responsibility, and neither of us feels like arguing about it. Let’s leave it at that.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Marriage Of Figaro – November 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Beaumarchais, translated/adapted by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by Jatinder Verma

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 20th November 2006

This was a novel experience. The original play by Beaumarchais has been turned into an Indian extravaganza, complete with music. It ends up looking much more like a Brian Rix farce set in India (this is not a criticism). It took a while to get used to the characters dancing on and dancing off, as well as occasional bursts of dancing in the middle, but it was good fun, and the Indian hierarchy seemed to work just as well as the old European one.

The set was relatively simple – two walls at an angle to the front of the stage, with four or five doors. The musician sat to one side, playing a variety of instruments, mostly drums, I think, but the music blended in so well I can pay it the compliment of saying I didn’t notice it too often. There were only five actors, and more parts than that, so some characters were played with masks, allowing any spare actor to represent them. One of the masks seemed to be an ear, another a nose, etc. This mostly worked very well, but in a few scenes, actors had to slip away and leave their mask to be held by another character, so I might have preferred one or two more actors in the cast, just to make it easier on everyone, including the audience.

The plot came thick and fast. In fact, about the only criticism I have of the performances was that some of the dialogue went like the clappers, and what with trying to pick up on the different cultural references, I found it hard to follow at times. But I did get the gist (after all, I have seen the opera), and some of it was hilarious. References like “the rupee’s dropped, at last!”, and “pardon my Hindi”, after a brief bit of swearing, went down very well. It was a shame the audience wasn’t as full as usual, and the sheer volume of plot permutations did get a little trying at times. But this was a good fun production, very well performed, and deserves a lot of success.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me