Although not universally true, much of David Hare’s dramatic output might best be summarised as “state of the nation” plays which have commented on and even satirised contemporary society. His great trilogy of Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence Of War sequentially tackled religion, the law and politics head on and Pravda went for the press’s jugular. However, it is rather more unusual for Hare to step away from British concerns and reflect on the state of other nations. Yet his play Behind The Beautiful Forevers does exactly that, looking at an aspect of Indian society which journalist Katherine Boo documented in her 2012 book. The full title of this neatly sums up the subject of the drama- Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Both the reportage and the play paint an account of life in the Annawadi slums of Mumbai, constructed in the shadow of the airport next to a sewage lake. Here the inhabitants scratch out a living collecting and sorting through the garbage produced by the airline industry and its associated hotels. This is a culturally diverse collection of people and inevitably tensions arise simply through the day to day struggles of survival.
This is an ensemble piece though, if it can be said to have central character, it is probably old-before-his-time Abdul Husain (Shane Zaza) renowned locally as the king of the sorters and on whom his family have come to depend for an income. Indeed, compared with many another Annawadi family they actually have money at their disposal and matriarch Zehrunisa (Meera Syal) is keen to improve their lot. This leads her into conflict with her immediate neighbour the one legged Fatima (Thusitha Jayasundera). When the latter makes a desperate and horrific gesture to elicit some sympathy for her situation the Hussains find themselves coming up against a corrupt law enforcement system facilitated by the local “fixer” Asha (Stephanie Street). Abdul is sent to a brutal correctional facility and the rest of the family find themselves embroiled in an interminable court case reminiscent of Dickensian London. There are other subplots involving the generation gap, education (and its lack), enforced marriage, gang violence, exploitation and messages on pollution all of which might seem extremely muddling. However, by focusing all aspects towards his central message of struggle in adversity leading to final success (of sorts), Hare manages to tame the diverse material and deliver a play that is the powerful equal of Boo’s non-fictional account.
Director Rufus Norris clearly leads the audience through this vibrant community’s story and ensures that the stage teams with life at every opportunity; this contrasts well with some of the more intimate indoor scenes. Katrina Lindsay’s splendid design evokes the hot house atmosphere of the slum which is pasted over with adverts for ceramic tiles that “stay beautiful forever”; society papers over the reality but the veneer is very thin. The revolve stage also takes us into the sparsely furnished hospital and the local police station and the proximity of the airport means some thunderously vivid planes are evoked through Paul Arditti’s sound design and the video work of Jack Henry James.
As five of the last seven shows I’ve reviewed were monologues I felt it was high time I got back to a full bustling stage and Behind The Beautiful Forevers delivered this triumphantly. It’s a sprawling melange of a show evoking texts such as Midnight’s Children and A Perfect Boy and is as entertaining as it is thought provoking. It’s one of those plays that would probably be impossible to stage successfully in the current climate and this videoed version reminds us of what we have lost. It is also a salutary reminder that India has had eight daily record increases in the Covid infection rate in the last nine days and that a new variant discovered there could well mean a sudden return to the new normal. Perhaps we should take heart from the message of hope on which this play ends.
Behind The Beautiful Forevers is available on National Theatre At Home – click here
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