Saturday, 15 November 2014

'Behind The Beautiful Forevers' at The National Theatre

On Friday we went to see 'Behind The Beautiful Forevers' at the National Theatre. It's a new play by David Hare based on the book by Katherine Boo who spent three years in the slums behind Mumbai airport to write it.

It's the tale of two families and their friends in the slums and grinding poverty, of 'pickers' and 'sorters' of the rubbish the world unthinkingly throws away but the inhabitants of the slums collect and sell for a few rupees. Every now and then the shadow of a plane flies overhead to remind us the scene is outside an airport with luxury hotels. At one point we're told that the ashes from the slums dung fires fly over the walls into the swimming pools of the hotels and the two worlds collide.

At the centre of the play is Meera Syal who plays a strong women watching her family gradually become 'rich', at least by the standards of the slums. This is largely through the work of her expert 'sorter' son, Abdul, a quiet and gentle soul who is exceptionally good at his job. This leads to friction with her neighbours who sam to think it's unfair that her son is so good at his job. The friction escalates until one of the neighbours - a lady called 'one leg' because of her disability' - douses herself in paraffin and sets fire to herself, blaming Meera's family and others use this as an opportunity to attack the family. Father and son are arrested and beaten by the corrupt police and legal system, then the daughter is also arrested. The family's meagre wealth gradually dwindles through the daily bribes to see them all in prison and to take them food.

The other family is led by another strong woman who plays the 'go-to' woman in the slums. If you have a problem you go to her and she might be able to find you money to help or intervene with the police if you're in trouble. This is her job and she mercilessly extorts money from people who need her. Later in the play we see the price she, herself, pays for being in that position. Her daughter gets an education through her work and the daughter in turn tries to spread her learning and knowledge of the world outside the slums. Very little turns out well.

We also meet the 'pickers', those young men and boys who carry on the family tradition of picking through the rubbish that's dumped outside the airport and hotel complexes. It's dangerous work, with gangs and violence but the rewards can be so tempting to those who have nothing. At one point there's a great scene with Abdul sitting sorting in the centre of the stage and the shadow of an areoplane flies over and suddenly a huge amount of plastic bottles miscellaneous rubbish are dropped onto the stage just behind him. That's a great image for our unthinking pollution but, on the other hand, it generates an income for those in the slums.

The staging was quite simple and the stage itself was strewn with rubbish most of the time. The stage rotates so that we can have scenes in the slums and, when the stage turns, scenes in the hospital and police station just outside the slums. It's not a pretty set but was very effective.

The stand out actors for me were Hiran Abeysekera who played Sunil, the young lad 'picker' whose fortune keeps changing but he had a warmth about him that meant I was on his side throughout. He also closed the play in a most spectacular fashion (which I won't say any more about). Stephanie Street was great as the 'go to' woman, Asha, back rigid in her sari, all so proper and fiercely businesslike but the facade slips when she has to leave her birthday party laid on by her family. Shane Zaza was excellent as Abdul who plays the skilled 'sorter', the still centre of the play and friend of Sunil. Quiet and honourable amongst the noise and dangers of the slums, going to the prison to give himself up in place of his father, there was a quiet, sad dignity throughout his time on the stage.

But, of course, it's Meera Syal who gets most kudos, moving from a brazen matriarch to a humbled woman who freely admits that she's made mistakes and her previous impervious and decisive decision-making led to problems. It's a slow transition and, in part, marked by an increasing use of her scarf to cover her head as she needs to present a different face to the world. Meera is a very talented actress and I was massively impressed with her touching performance as 'Shirley Valentine' a few years back and her commanding presence as Beatrice in 'Much Ado About Nothing' in 2012. I'd love to see Meera take on more stage roles. There was a great interview with her in the Independent last week.

One of the little joys of the production for me was the music, particularly playing a song from the film 'Om Shanti Om', my favourite Bollywood film. As the song 'Deewangi Deewangi' started playing I glanced around at the audience and thought, 'I might be the only one in the audience who knows what this is…'. Part of me hopes I was the only person - but now a whole lot more people know it!

This production is well worth seeing - it's at the start of its run so there's plenty of time to see it. Head over to the Southbank and be prepared to be surprised.

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