David Hare’s new play is an exemplary dramatisation of Katherine Boo’s non-fiction work about the slums of Mumbai. Hare squeezes the most theatrical moments out of Boo’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning reportage, preserving the clarity of voice and retaining the objective tone that gives the book such power. Boo’s research into the Annawadi slum, whose destitute inhabitants live off rubbish generated by the nearby airport, investigates poverty in an intelligent, non-patronising and thought-provoking manner. The book and stage show are glimpses into another world – horrifying and filled with tragedy, and yet full of life and hope.
A strong cast peoples the slum effectively. One surprise is how matrifocal society in Annawadi is. Stephanie Street plays Asha, a ruthless yet complex figure aiming to control the slum, with her own shocking take on the virtues of corruption. Victims abound, including the once relatively prosperous Hussain family, headed by Zehrunisa (Meera Syal gives a terrific performance), caught in the Indian legal system after the tragic machinations of their neighbour Fatima. Thusitha Jayasundera, who wonderfully doubles as a judge, takes the part of the crippled Fatima, who burns herself to death to spite the Hussains. A parallel tale of a girl so desperate that she drinks bleach shows the prevalence of suicide in the slum as an act of self-determination – grim exercises in defiance that come to haunt the stage.
Designer Katrina Lindsay recreates the spatchcock dwellings with bold economy. Director Rufus Norris marshals activity to recreate the energy of the environment and especially among its younger inhabitants: Sunil, who becomes a thief despite the dangers, and the innocent Abdul, whose brush with the law makes him want to become ever more virtuous. Further strong performances here from Hiran Abeysekera and Shane Zaza in these roles. As Norris’ first project at the National since the announcement that he is to succeed Nicholas Hytner, Behind The Beautiful Forevers is an exciting choice. Norris uses the Olivier auditorium with confidence, revelling in its scale. More importantly, he and Hare have created one of those works of theatre that strike you as something everyone should see.
Until 13 April 2015
Photos by Richard Hubert Smith