Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Name of the Rose

Into the wild hinterlands of Dalston for Gandhi and the Coconuts, to watch Kali Theatre's adventurous new production at the Arcola theatre. Written by  acclaimed playwright Bettina Gracias who is half Australian and half Indian, this piece of theatre starts out as somewhat whimsical and sterotypical of the light farcical fare that  is expected of Indobrit theatre thanks to Tamasha,  Tara Arts and the Waterman Arts Centre, but is a story told on many levels which drives home an important message.
Sophyia Haque as Asha

Rez Kempton as Ajay

Asha has come from Goa, to live in England with her husband Ajay.  Her initial amazement,
"I'm so lucky to be here,"
soon descends into disenchantment. The milk back home "was the sweetest, the creamiest",  and she yearns for that life, when people were interconnected and the milkman brought her the daily gossip.   The gorgeous, sexy Sophiya  Haque plays the timid, plump housewife, so typical of subcontinental women who live in their husband's shadow, who daren't dance and barely move. It's as if, like an exotic bird  which shimmers in the sunshine of warmer climes, she has lost all her colour and her song has become tuneless. Every day Ajay (Rez Kemption, Spooks,  Banged up Abroad)  goes to work at his boring job and every day she kisses him goodbye and tells him to have a good day. Everyday he responds

"I won't."

The monotony of their day-to day life is enervating to the point of distraction and Asha is certainly distracted after being rejected by her racist obnoxious neighbour ("Turn that Paki music down , one phone call and I could have  you arrested"). Poor Asha is too frightened to leave her high rise prison  to follow her dreams of impossible happiness and adventure, so the gods of her dreams come into her living room. First enters Gandhi-ji, who has chunked up a little and is very hungry after 62 years of not eating. He regrets his life-long ascetism, declaring

"The pleasures of the flesh are what makes life sweet," which only adds to Asha's  confusion.

"What does it matter of I exist or I don't exist?" He challenges her, when she fears that he is just a projection from her mind. He insists on staying for tea. Then Kali, the Hindu goddess of sex and death appears.

Gandhi and Asha, over a cup of tea
Played by a sibilant, serpent-like Nimmi Harasgama, Kali explodes onto the tiny set with a burst of sexual energy and slinky hips. She flicks her tongue like a crazed lizard, intent on performing cunnilingus on the whole universe and her femininity which is channelled through sex , death, power and "releasing the tiger in the core" are life lessons for Asha who is dazed that her second favourite deity has entered her space, her first being the god who removes all obstacles, Ganesh. Not far behind Kali is a repentant Lord Shiva, who has been absent for 100 years, after 100 years of love-making with his wife. She abuses him and accuses him of being with his first wife Parvati.

The three deities (Gandhi is a deity in Asha's mind too) take Asha on a mind-jolting frenzy  through sexuality, lust and power, Kali urges her to release her power through her feminine life force, like a tiger. Sadly Asha is more like a   hippopotamus, a baby elephant and Gandhi  has "has released his gay butterfly." When Asha tries these moves on her husband, he is horrified and accuses her of being like a prostitute. The male deities question their existence and the paths they have chosen with some particularly hilarious comments from Gandhi, resenting he gave up all earthly comfort. Shiva proclaims that Gandhi is the higher god, and that he should have been more like him, followed in his footsteps to which Kali retorts

"His footsteps don't lead to my bedroom."
Lord Shiva

Kali gets some of the best lines, she is the irresistable feminine force, Shiva cannot resist her, no man can subvert her sexual prowess. She forces Shiva to lie at her feet, accusing him,

"Are you like every Indian man, thinking sex is wrong? ...You are a fraud. You could not live in our union."

She screams, as she despairs about ever being able to help Asha to uncover her real self,

"I have been trying to inject fire into Indian women for hundreds of years!"

And therein lies the question at the heart of the dilemma of being an Asian woman.  In the Hindu pantheon, the female goddesses dominate, even Lord Shiva is subjugated by Kali's energy. Asha delights in the shimmying shapes of Bollywood dances, alone in the privacy of her living room, throwing her ample bust around and shaking her hips hard, but in front of her husband she is  docile. When she tries to express her needs and her hungers, when she tells him that she has needs too, he is repulsed. "Like a naughty sneeze in the dark on a Saturday night" they have sex once a week. Surely that is enough, after all he is tired, he works to provide a home for her, to send money home to his family in Mumbai. he is exhausted and he wants "normal" when he comes home.
Kali reading Grazia

During his trek through the universe, looking for the perfect flower for Kali, Shiva has found a black rose. He presents it to her as a peace offering and gives a blush pink rose to Asha, to represent her sweetness and simplicity. The conflict is in combining both aspects of light and dark and being a woman. Women are meant to be all light and candy-floss, not this dark, sexually possessed, hungry deity who can control men and her own fate by her sheer force of will. The play raises a lot of questions about how Asian women in particular seek out a sexless identity, in order to conform, but at great expense to their own desires and ambitions. This from a culture that gave birth to the Kama Sutra and the erotic statues of  Khajuraho Temple , Indian women are meant to subsume their natural sexuality and become chaste and unsexual. 

Another question the play raises which asks,  is it more important to be happy or to be sane, is one which doesn't discriminate about gender.

This is  a fine, thought and issue provoking  piece of playwriting, which tours the country nationally and  boasts some of the finest British Asian talent around. Sophyia Haque performs exquisitely, hamming it up in her Bollywood item number and drawing the audience into her character's private interior world with absolute pathos as Asha becomes undone. As Asha she covers a range of emotions and expressions in three hours that  Z-lister Konnie Huq can only dream to achieve in a lifetime. This could be Sophyia's big break, she deserves it, having done the Bollywood bibi rounds and achieved some mainstream fame in productions such as The Far Pavilions and Bombay Dreams

This is not only clever and entertaining theatre directed by Janet Steele, the themes of this play reach all women, no matter their culture or colour. Watch it at the Arcola till December 18th and then on tour in Plymouth, West Bromwich and  Leicester.

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