Tag Archives: Anjana Vasan

“A Doll’s House” from the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith

Artistic director Rachel O’Riordan’s brief introduction to this chance to see her superb work online – unfortunately only for one day – was offered with “recovery and hope for the future” in mind. There’s the important call for donations, but also a reminder of theatre’s importance as a place for diversity, inclusion and seeing stories from different perspectives. Her choice of Tanika Gupta’s acclaimed version of Ibsen’s classic illustrates her point perfectly. It’s fantastic theatre.

While O’Riordan points out that the recording was for archival purposes, as opposed to broadcast, so the action is often shot from the Gods – this doesn’t detract from a show that sounds and looks great from the start – with music from Arun Ghosh and gorgeous design by Lily Arnold. And what is on offer here is very special. Gupta takes a plot from Ibsen, an urgent objection to hypocrisy and injustice, and deep psychological insight with complex characters. But transposing Ibsen’s Norway for India ruled by the Raj adds immeasurably – it’s one of the finest ‘new versions’ I’ve seen.

While Ibsen’s period setting is preserved, the extra layer of colonial and racial concerns adds power. Nora, now Niru, is married to a British official, and the prejudice she has faced, along with Indian unrest, form a backdrop for the action. Yet Gupta handles all this with a light touch that O’Riordan appreciates throughout. That’s important – some things said may shock but this would have been the characters’ everyday lives. Nuances of complicity and acceptance as much as anger at injustice are all present. Gupta is blunt about British rule, and particularly justice, but Indians are also criticised. And the patriarchy is a target, too.

If any of this sounds a little… worthy… Gupta also impresses by how exciting she makes the play. There’s a great sense of menace as “past evils and mistakes” circle around every scene. Dr Rank, the at-death’s-door depressive becomes a serious character, the flirtation with Niru queasily upsetting as well as erotic. Niru’s old friend Mrs Lahiri, who admits her jealousy, makes a great role for Tripti Tripuraneni while Das (Krogstad in Ibsen) is just as good. Das is the play’s villain, a “thoroughly nasty specimen”, but he is also a complex character as Assad Zaman adds real fire to the role.

The lead roles share Gupta’s skill with characterisation and the result is a triumph for both Elliot Cowan as Tom Helmer and Anjana Vasan as Niru.

Cowan’s character has a little too much resting on him in this version but it is still an effective disappointment to see how far he falls. His love for his wife, however misguided, convinces. Their marriage is developed with great detail. Vasan’s performance is suitably nuanced and incredibly rich: flirty, sulky, stubborn, hopeful and despairing, the common factor is an intoxicating energy. When it comes to a scene of Niru dancing, on display for Tom’s English friends so that plenty of uncomfortable connotations come to the fore, Vasan is truly riveting.

There is a strength behind Niru that is gripping. As the plot resolves, her dream of happiness is still broken and her “stern” look at Tom is fully justified: he insultingly offers her “classes” but Niru isn’t the playful pupil anymore. Moving to freedom with more resolution than Ibsen imagined, taking what’s best from her literary predecessor, Gupta gives us the ending we really want. 

Available 20 May 2020

To support visit www.lyric.co.uk

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“Rutherford and Son” at the National Theatre

While Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play has long been acknowledged as an important text, Polly Findlay’s new production reveals the work to be a true masterpiece. No doubt old-fashioned, being driven by a strong plot featuring excellent characters and dripping with detail, the piece contains bigger concerns that feel remarkably contemporary. The story of a tyrannical patriarch who lives for his factory at the expense of his family, the obsession with legacy and reputation may be removed from our times, but Rutherford’s business model is easily recognisable.

At the centre of the play is Rutherford himself – a mammoth role that Roger Allam takes in his stride. Allam is so good he can allow humour into the part, which is important as the sexism, snobbery and bullying are hard to swallow. And, for all the awful things Rutherford says and does, Allam manages to inject a compelling charm. It’s easy to imagine his workforce and family being devoted to him. Rutherford’s character is revealed slowly – notably he is talked about a great deal before we meet him, which gives us a complex person rather than a caricature. Given his cultivated pretence of reasonableness, you may find yourself agreeing with him more than you’d like, even when he’s at his most outrageous.

Justine Mitchell

Allum is amazing, but it’s Findlay’s triumph that, unlike Rutherford, he isn’t totally in charge. A superb supporting cast moulds the focus of the play from scene to scene. Harry Hepple and Sam Troughton play the hapless sons, a mix of timid piety and privileged bluster that’s increasingly unattractive. There’s a brilliant performance from Justine Mitchell as the daughter, Janet, who provides evidence of the cruelty brought to all the siblings’ upbringings. The outcome of her story, containing a shock and a mystery, is deeply moving. It’s in his daughter-in-law, Anjana Vasan’s Ann, quiet for so much of the play, that Rutherford meets his match, with a finale that makes ruthless bargaining a riveting drama.

Rutherford and Son could so easily be dismissed as all about repression – hence less relevant to our times. But there’s actually plenty of confrontation in the play and presenting both shows Sowerby’s genius. The characters aren’t pushovers – they wouldn’t convince if they were. Rather, quiet moments, in particular the depressing resignation the women often display, create a distinct rhythm for the piece that builds in power. Although bleak, there’s a sense of satisfaction that Rutherford is justly rewarded. Given that he’s a glass manufacturer, a profession Lizzie Clachan’s gorgeous set emphasises, the danger of throwing stones should be clear. Or maybe that’s wish fulfilment on my part? The finale has a Rutherford heir who isn’t quite the son anyone presumed. Questioning what might come next is Sowerby’s aim, highlighting motherhood makes this a play focuses on the future far more than for the past.

Until 3 August 2019

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk  

Photos by Johan Persson

“Summer and Smoke” at the Almeida Theatre

The youthful courtships in Tennessee Williams’ plays are usually things of the past – recounted by his formidable heroines. Here the action unfolds before us and whether the affair between minister’s daughter Alma and her next-door neighbour John will evolve is filled with an exciting tension… if you’re an optimist or haven’t seem much Williams. Sense-talking Alma is hugely sympathetic, while John is sensitive and passionate, a doctor making a mess of his youth. Presented as two extremes of spirituality and physicality, a compromise between them would be good for both. It’d be nice if it worked out.

There isn’t a party at the end, sorry, and the 1948 play’s reputation isn’t much celebrated either. But this production is so strong it takes us well into the second act to see why. After an electrifying argument as John’s father lies murdered (I didn’t say there was no melodrama), the play drags its feet, harps on about unrequited love and becomes, well, mopey. Alma was, reportedly, Williams’ favourite heroine – her fire and fierce intelligence makes this understandable – but while the performance here, from Patsy Ferran, does her justice, Alma deserves better than the end she had written for her.

Unlike the play, the production is faultless. Rebecca Frecknall has directed the piece before and her close knowledge proves invaluable. Matthew Needham delivers a fine performance as John, who is filled with sexual frustration and confusion. Despite cruelties and misogynistic remarks, the attraction is clear. Using the play’s motif of doppelgängers Frecknall doubles her cast cleverly, which feels like a defining way to stage the show. And taking multiple roles as various love rivals to Alma means Anjana Vasan really gets to shine. The staging is simple yet beautiful, taking inspiration from Williams’ experimental works. Few props and no costume changes, just seven pianos forming a semi-circle and accompanying music from Angus MacRae that adds to the atmosphere immeasurably.

As for Ferran, she’s so good she gets her own paragraph here. Ferran’s performance is career making: she inhabits Alma but makes us question the character’s self-definition as “weak and divided”. Her physical frailty is painful to watch. Depicting the degeneration of her health is astounding and Alma’s struggle against illness both moving and determined. Ferran can even inject a sly humour, with a suggestive eyebrow that’s a great asset. Cast in a show that’s as smart as she clearly is, the combination is a production that makes as forceful a case for this flawed masterpiece as Williams himself could have wished for.

Until 7 April 2018

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Emma Rice’s first production as artistic director at the Globe has provided controversy for the much-loved venue and tourist hotspot. Fans of Rice’s work with her previous company, Kneehigh, will recognise some techniques here. But applied to Shakespeare, her irreverence and inventiveness proves invigorating.

First a caution – for some odd folk – this approaches Dream: The Musical. No excuse necessary, but it is striking how much of the play is sung. Stu Barker’s score is accomplished, dramaturg Tanika Gupta’s lyrics (drawing on the Sonnets and John Donne) are exciting and the singing West End standard. There’s a clever Indian twist and an electric sitar, so let’s describe the sound as Bollywood Rock. Is Rice being provoking? I do hope so.

Raucous is de rigueur at the Globe but, for good or ill, Rice has upped the stakes. If it weren’t for fear of sounding hopelessly out of touch I’d suggest some age advisory warning. There were squeals of horror in the crowd at some pretty full-on audience participation.

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Zubin Varla and Meow Meow

The show is sexy – many clothes are shed – and the polymorphous sexuality in Shakespeare is emboldened. Most impressively, with the King and Queen roles played by Zubin Varla and cabaret star Meow Meow – both intense performers –their chemistry is captivating. We’re reminded how creepy Titania being “enamoured of an ass” really is and both stars hold the stage, despite too much going on.

There are reservations. When Beyoncé is first quoted, your heart might sink at such an easy appeal to a younger audience. There’s a great deal of movement and some of it is messy. With water pistols, crazy costumes and a lot of accents, it’s anything for a lark. And the problem? Too many lines are difficult to hear, even lost. Rice lands the laughs, but they often fall at the expense of Shakespeare or, more generously, use the play as merely a springboard.

The hyped gender-bending casting (which is hardly new) may have been seen before, but not with the bite that Rice manages. Katy Owen does a superb job as Puck, working the crowd brilliantly, despite that water pistol. The rude mechanicals are recast as women. Only Bottom remains male – Ewan Wardrop doing the guys proud. Updating the wannabe theatricals into Globe volunteers is sweet and leads to excellent cameos, especially for Lucy Thackeray, whose calm ad lib, “my nephew’s gay”, tickled me pink.

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Ncuti Gatwa and Ankur Bahl

But it’s most with the Athenian lovers that Rice’s indiscretions are forgiven. Updating the couples into Hoxton hipsters is very funny. Ncuti Gatwa and Edmund Derrington make an energetic Demetrius and Lysander. Anjana Vasan gets roars of approval for her very modern Hermia. Ankur Bahl plays –hold on – Helenus, with wit and courage. There’s more to this decision than giving the line “ugly as a bear” a new twist. An uncomfortable response from some, admittedly young, audience members gives pause for thought. The Globe is a global institution (listen to how many visitors are from abroad). To see love between two men portrayed with complexity on such a stage is remarkable. There may be touches of over enthusiasm here but Rice balances public appeal with a radical streak that makes this show, and her direction, one of the most exciting things around.

Until 11 September 2016

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photos by Steve Tanner

“Dara” at the National Theatre

With Behind The Beautiful Forevers still running – and well worth watching – The National Theatre offers another, very different, view of the Indian subcontinent with Dara. Adapted for a Western audience by Tanya Ronder, from Shahid Nadeem’s play, this historical epic shows the battle between Shah Jahan’s sons for the Mughal Empire. It’s a riveting story, all the more exciting if you aren’t familiar with the history (imagine the Tudors without knowing Henry had six wives); a family drama boasting an ambitious sense of scale that makes it topical too.

Nadia Fall’s quick-fire direction stages the action with speed, while Katrina Lindsay’s design and a large cast creates a sumptuous feel. Though a wide span of time is covered (the play is long, but never droops) and some roles are feel curtailed, Vincent Ebrahim manages to give Shah Jahan great depth, and Nathalie Armin is superb as his daughter, Jahanara. Zubin Varla takes the title role, a hugely satisfying character, saintly yet very human and ferociously intelligent. Dara’s fate is to be tried for apostasy – his own defence in court is fantastic theatre.

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Sargon Yelda and Anjana Vasan

Dara is as much about Shah Jahan’s other son, Aurangzeb, who claimed the throne and rejected both Sufism and the religious toleration that Dara explored. A tyrannical figure, Sargon Yelda’s performance as Aurangzeb is wonderfully layered. A brief, exquisitely crafted scene with his Hindu lover, ably played by Anjana Vasan, really helps. Aurangzeb isn’t just a villain and the play’s exploration of the need to choose between “faith or family” makes it great drama. It’s Dara’s religious content that makes it feel so urgent – presenting the “broken prince”, a figure to revere despite his fall from power, it provides a different view of religion at a time when one is so desperately needed.

Until 4 April 2015

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Ellie Kurttz