ALL HUMAN LIFE: A TERRIBLE BEAUTY ON A RUBBISH TIP
In the interval of this headlong, crowded kaleidoscope of a play it was hard to know where the second part of David Hare’s script could go. With a 34-strong Asian cast, it is shaped from Katherine Boo’s painstaking three-year documentation of the Indian urban poor in Annawadi: the “undercity” scrabbling a living from the rubbish around Mumbai airport. Hidden behind the vast cosmetic posters for “Luxury Apartments” or “Beautiful Forever”, these are the ones the tourist board prefers we do not see.
And that first breathless act, using the vast panorama of the Olivier stage as a corrugated shanty town and bleak police station, felt like every human drama: a neighbourhood catfight, a cynically corrupt police-procedural, a social and environmental comment on global capitalism, a comedy of post-colonial manners, a touching portrait of teenage friendship, and at least two Greek tragedies. One involving fatal envy and self-immolation, another a young man’s a gesture of heroic idealism as powerful as Antigone’s. All this beneath the thundering shadow of jumbo jets, and centred on a patient, careful figure sorting rubbish. Plastic bottles fall like blessings from above , and Abdul (wonderful Shane Zaza), fills sacks, supports his family, only mildly grumbles that bottletops are half-metal half-plastic and need separating.
It is more than a documentary, though: India lives on tales, and the narrative is heart-hammeringly strong. My interval qualms were only because for the central Husain family – the ever-magnificent Meera Syal as its matriarch – it seemed to be all over. They are accused of beating up the stroppy one-legged prostitute Fatima (a fiercely spirited Thusitha Jayasundera) who burns herself to death. The family fail to pay a bribe fast enough, and are variously imprisoned, tortured, and ruined. Life, however, goes on: and the second part is almost stronger, directing us not to schmaltzy “Slumdog Millionaire” feelgoodery but to an ironic conclusion of the case, and more importantly to something which can only be expressed in cliché: a tribute to the human spirit. Without spoilers, let me say that a line near the end about walking to a bus sparked an unexpected tear; and moments later a boy’s leap roused a cheer.
But as documentary too it is important, a good omen for the play’s director Rufus Norris, who takes over the NT reins next year. Katherine Boo’s book makes it firmly clear that these are not the abject, the poorest of the streets. In a rising economy, a BRIC nation, and they are the “not-poor”, economically active but intensely fragile in global changes: a Wall Street crash, observes the spry lad Sunil (Hiran Abeysekera) means they start cooking rats again. Vincent Ebrahim’s Karam curses “Don’t drop litter” posters, because without litter they starve. In the good times Syal’s matriarch swanks that although Abdul was born on the pavement outside the Intercontinental Hotel like a naked rat in the gutter, his hard work means they can afford a shelf in their shack and need not squat to cook. One rung above her is Asha , the local Mrs Fixit whose assignations with officials yet another rung above enable her to educate her daughter Manju – who in turn secretly teaches her friend Meena, a despairing unschooled captive of her family’s marriage plans.
With hilarious post-Colonial absurdity, what Manju passes on is Mrs Dalloway (“Who are these people? what do they do?”) and Congreve’s The Way of the World. Though she spots that Congreve is all about money, corruption and negotiated sex, just like Annawadi . Meanwhile the police chief can educate his son because of the bonus he gets for a 100% clear-up rate of murders, a statistic easily achieved by writing off a horribly mutilated young victim’s corpse as “Tuberculosis”. You do what you have to do, in Annawadi: as Zehrusina resignedly says “Everything is stolen!”. Or as Asha puts it more grandly “I have learned from First Class People, if you don’t think it’s wrong, it isn’t”. Sharp.
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NT LIVE in 550 cinemas 12 March 2015: http://www.ntlive.com