Are you bored of my blog posts extolling the virtues of every play the National Theatre ever stage? Then move along, there’s nothing for you here.
This weekend I headed to my beloved concrete block with stages in it to check out one of their new season plays, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. The play is based on the award winning non-fiction book of the same name by journalist Katherine Boo. It’s not an obvious choice to be adapted for the stage - an intimate account of the lives of the families living in Mumbai slum Annawadi, built on land owned by and in the shadow of Mumbai’s multi-million pound international airport, where Boo lived for three years to gather the material for her book. The implications on this for the play are clear: the characters it portrays are real, ordinary people, the events really happened and all of this only a few years old (Boo lived in Annawadi between 2007 and 2011). As I say, not an obvious choice and one that needed great sensitivity and skill to stage effectively.
The play (and book) follow the trials and tribulations of the Hussain family, kingpins of the local rubbish sorting business who are keen to get on, improve their home and eventually move to a new one where people won’t regard them as “shitty Muslims”. Matriarch Zehrunisa (Meera Syal) and eldest son Abdul (Shane Zaza) are the driving heart of the family; Zehrunisa for her take-no-prisoners business dealings and Abdul as the most skilled rubbish sorter in the district. Their lives are affected by their interactions with two other families in Annawadi. Jealous neighbour Fatima (Thusitha Jayasundera), AKA One Leg (for obvious reasons), renowned as the village whore, hates Zehrunisa and is determined to bring down her and her family. And ambitious local fixer Asha (Stephanie Street) is using every tool at her disposal to become a “first class person”, regardless of what corruption that might entail. The three families’ worlds collide dramatically when Fatima’s jealousy of the Hussains adding a shelf to their kitchen leads her to set herself on fire and blame it on the family. Abdul and two other members of his family are arrested for inciting her suicide and Zehrunisa refuses Asha’s offer to fix the situation before it becomes, well, a situation - for a fee, of course. The resulting court case threatens (and nearly succeeds) to ruin the Hussains and lays bare the hypocrisy, corruption and paradoxes of modern Mumbai.
As a story, it feels huge, epic. And the fact that it’s a true story just gives it more power. I really loved this play for a whole host of reasons, but the dramatic sweep of its truelife narrative is definitely one of the biggest. It’s a great, tragic, thought provoking story and the stakes are so much higher because it’s all true.
Unusually for me, another huge reason why I loved this play is the production, in particular the sound and lighting effects. Directed with verve and pace by Rufus Norris (incoming Director of the National of course, so no pressure) this is a loud play, both in its incidental music and soundtrack - banging bhangra - and its effects. It looks loud too. The Mumbai bit of the set occupies the back of the stage and intrudes into Annawadi (the front of the stage) via a huge, ever present neon billboard, looming luxury tower blocks and the imposing fence that separates the slum from the airport beyond. Annawadi itself is stark and simple, strewn with plastic bottles and the occasional muted burst of colour (which sets off the beautiful jewel coloured costumes perfectly).
Now, if you’re planning on seeing the play yourself please do not read the next paragraph. It contains spoilers for a couple of serious production pieces that will lose their impact for you if you're expecting them. Ok? See you at the paragraph after next.
The fact that the play is set next to an airport is something that the designers really have fun with. They create a lighting/sound/video effect that has a jumbo jet coming into land across the ceiling of the theatre. It is visually stunning, so loud it made my seat shake and, frankly, terrifying when you’re not ready for it. This happens twice - I was glad, as the second time I definitely appreciate the artistry more - and the first time is made all the more spectacular and disorientating by the fact that as soon as the plane has ‘landed’ hundreds of plastic bottles are dropped onto the stage from the ceiling above. It’s noisy and chaotic and perfectly creates a sense of what life in Annawadi must be like. The final scenes of the play see half of the revolve retracted leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the stage into which one key character jumps in search of his next big rubbish picking opportunity. Epic staging for an epic story.
Hi people who are going to see the play - welcome back!
There are two other reasons to love this play, and ones that put me back on more comfortable territory. David Hare’s writing is, in short, excellent. The play is structured as a series of monologues (which I guess are verbatim passages from the book, or at least very closely adapted) joined up by punchy, fast paced, sweary dialogue. The use of the monologues to make and emphasise major points and themes could feel clunky or preachy in a lesser writer’s hands but here they seem natural, give a rhythm to the play and allow insight into the huge cast of characters that we otherwise just wouldn’t get.
Moreover the acting, from the National’s first ever all Asian company, is pretty much faultless. For obvious reasons, Meera Syal is being billed as the star of the show and she is fantastic; her monologues in particular are incredibly strong. For me though the real stars of the show performance-wise are Shane Zaza as Abdul and Anjana Vasan as Manju (Asha’s daughter, on course to be Annawadi’s first college graduate and passionate about the right of everyone, girls in particular, to an education). Both deliver fantastically nuanced performances, pitched and paced exactly right, with real emotional strength (translation: they both made me cry). It is a universally strong cast though, there isn’t a weak link beyond the occasional dropped accent.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a play that I think will stay with me for some time (and if its quality is indicative of what Rufus Norris’ tenure as the NT’s Director will be like then bring him on). It’s themes of what does it take to get on in life, what happens when everyone is trying to get on in life in the same finite space and how you be a good person in terrible circumstances all invite one question: if it were you, what would you do? We might not approve of Asha’s corruption or Abdul’s decision to stop handling stolen material even though it generates a lot of his family's income, but in the same situation why would we act any differently? Why would our way be better? And there’s no easy answer to that.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers opens at the National on 18th November and runs all the way through to April. No excuse, then, for you to not go and see it.