REVIEW: Behind The Beautiful Forevers, Olivier Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Behind the Beautiful Forevers at the National Theatre. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

Behind the Beautiful Forevers at the National Theatre. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

Behind The Beautiful Forevers
Olivier Theatre
17 November 2014
4 Stars

One of the great things that is possible because the National Theatre exists is the production of plays on an epic scale, with uncomfortable subjects and unfamiliar casts, about issues of real importance and touching on aspects of humanity not usually covered in mainstream theatre. Who would have thought that in a year where the National staged The James Plays trilogy, another epic play of wide-ranging scope and complexity would also come along?

But this is Nicholas Hytner’s last year at the helm and he is definitely seeking to go out with a bang. David Hare’s remarkable, sweeping and very human play, Behind The Beautiful Forevers, which is as much about modern Western life as it is about a small shanty town on the outskirts of Mumbai airport and the lives, aspirations and truths of its inhabitants, can now be savoured in the Olivier Theatre where it is having its premiere.

In the excellent programme notes, Professor Sunil Khilnani, Director of the India Institute at King’s College London makes this important point:

“In Britain and other Western countries, citizens live in the twilight era of the richly provisioned social state, and the age of the temp-job economy is well begun. There is frantic competition and hope and economic volatility and extra-illegal improvisation, especially when the usual avenues of upward mobility close down. The new Indian economy, playing out in elemental form in cities like Mumbai, may be hope-stoked in the way that Western economies no longer are, but in many of its particulars, it looks very much like the new global economy. And it’s coming to your city very soon.”

Hare’s play is based upon a book (same title) by Katherine Boo which was the product of three years of intensive research in the slum world of Annawadi, a place that exists just outside the perimeter of the Mumbai airport. I have not read the book, but what Hare has created here is a marvel: a tale of hope, horror and truth on an enormous scale, but rooted firmly in the characters and personalities of a particular culture, a particular place. It is, in every way, epic and at its most epic when looking into the minds of the central characters as they contemplate their existence which is a reflection of all of ours.

There is a great sense of spectacle and theatricality about Hare’s vision and it comes to graphic, kaleidoscopic reality under the direction of Rupert Norris and with the help of Katrina Lindsay’s powerfully evocative design augmented to perfection by the superb lighting design from Paule Constable. Somehow Constable lights Lindsay’s grime-soaked sets so that you feel the dirt and detritus which surrounds the Annawadians seep into your skin.

Despite a huge cast, with many actors playing multiple roles, Norris ensures that there is always clarity and that the pace never lags, except in the reflective moments where pause is the point. The plot fizzes along, much like the detonation fuse for an old-fashioned bomb; the tension mounts inexorably, the explosion inevitable. This is not to say the narrative is trite or formulaic; it’s not. Surprises are as commonplace as stereotypes; the tapestry of theatrical vision is true and engrossing.

The detail of the individual stories told here is intricate, delicate and inter-connected. Norris makes sure there a sense of community as well as a clear line between individuals. Corruption and poverty are common enemies for the entire community; tradition, honour and example provide hope for the future. And everything plays out in front of a turbulent backdrop of festive traditional marriages, casual murder and rape, the seismic presence of departing and arriving jumbo jets, corrupt officialdom, the slow, inevitable creep of Western advertising and the worship of American capitalism. It’s a joy to find out what the Beautiful Forevers are.

Hiran Abeysekera is remarkable as Sunil, the rubbish picker who shuns the life of a thief, and dreams of finding a treasure trove of rubbish that no one else knows about. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is, for him, that hidden rubbish pile. He makes his living by picking up rubbish and selling it on. After Wall Street crashes and the local market for recyclable rubbish plummets as well, Sunil is seduced by petty crime and its promise of an easy life. But it all goes wrong and, chastened and wiser, Sunil returns to his dreams.

Abeysekera is an absolute joy in every respect. He radiates sunny optimism and effortlessly charts Sunil’s seduction by the promise of regular food and good money, and his subsequent reclaiming of his irrepressible spirit – the moment where he is caught by vicious, sadistic guards is horrifying. His exchanges with Shane Zaza’s Abdul Husain provide the terrific core of the play.

Zaza is breathtakingly good as Abdul, the sorter of rubbish whose tireless work supports his family. Abdul is shy, introverted, a natural and honest peacemaker. He loves his family and will do anything for them (and his friend Sunil). He watches and listens – and, most importantly, thinks and learns. It is a centred, completely real, and superb performance in every way.

Abdul becomes inadvertently embroiled in a neighbourhood dispute and is detained and tortured by the police and then sentenced to a juvenile detention centre for some time, until his mother pays bribes to secure his release pending trial. When he is released, he is unprepared to go along with the bad behaviour that his community takes for granted and makes a stand for honesty and truth. Zaza, with style and tremendous sincerity, shows Abdul’s journey, turning in a performance of gentle, quiet assurance and power. He is absolutely wonderful in every way.

As is Stephanie Street, who plays Asha, the local “fixer”, the woman who helps everyone for the right price and who is determined to get her daughters a better life and will do anything to ensure that. Asha is a cold, calculating woman with an eye for the highest price she can exact from a poor soul needing aid, but she is also a mother, and a woman who has done worse than sold her soul to ensure her connections. Street is delicious in every way; pure steel when making a bargain, warm and insistent as matriarch to her clan.

Thusitha Jayasundera has one of the showcase turns and does not disappoint. She plays Fatima aka “One Leg”, a woman told from birth that she is “wrong” and who just wants to be accepted. Fatima makes that hard by her vicious tongue and unyielding attitude, not to mention her income earning choices, but her tale ends in unrelenting pain and tragedy. Jayasundera makes the most of the opportunities the part offers and creates a vibrant, memorable and tragic figure. Her work is all the more impressive when she returns in Act Two as a pretentious and corrupt Judge and the range of her ability is acutely demonstrated.

As Manu, Asha’s daughter, who is being properly educated at University (and in one glorious scene confesses she can’t make head nor tail of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway) Anjana Vasan is pure delight. Her gentle rebellion against her family and their traditions is finely judged, and you can almost see the effect that learning and education has on her spirit and resolve.

In the central, pivotal role of Zehrunisa, Abdul’s arrogant, ungenerous, spiteful, and demanding mother, the woman who collects the profits earnt by Abdul’s hard work and good nature and wants to spend them on tiles for her shanty shack, Meera Syal misses the mark. There is a bitter, supercilious core to the character, an unlikeable repellence, which Syal does not come close to conveying; but without that, the character’s fate does not resonate as it should. It’s partly a matter of miscasting and partly a matter of Syal not being prepared, or able, to be disliked by the audience. Instead of granite, there is salt, but watching granite be pulverised is a different experience to watching salt melt away. Syal’s Zehrunisa should be the hardest woman here, but she is not, and that costs the play a deal of its effectiveness.

There is excellent work from most of the cast: Nathalie Armin is superbly ghastly as a corrupt official; Anjli Mohindra delightful as Abdul’s outspoken sister who has fled her loveless husband; Manjeet Mann, oily and spiteful as a vengeful competitor to Abdul’s business; Assad Zaman, cool and tragic as Sunil’s chancer mate; Anneika Rose heartfelt and broken as Manu’s friend who tries to learn with Manu contrary to her family’s wishes. Some of the older male roles are played with haphazard ability, but nothing which detracts from the overall achievements.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a magnificent achievement, one that could not happen in the Commercial Theatre sector. It’s a great adaptation of a true story, pulsing with theatricality and human spirit. It is precisely what the National Theatre is for. Rufus Norris has laid a peg in the ground for the kind of repertoire his forthcoming tenure at the National may bring. Time will tell.

See this play. It will enchant and haunt you. As all great plays can.

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