Apologies to the Bengali Lady
Greenside @ Nicolson Square
The scene is set, with a young academic (Anya Banerjee) busily working away on her laptop amidst many scattered papers. She's clearly having issues with her work and, when a drunken and rowdy chorus of Auld Lang Syne echoes through the window, she promptly give the world the finger. Thereafter, in a fit of anger and writer's block, she summons up a mental personification of William Shakespeare (Clayton McInerney) to vent her frustrations upon and proceeds to argue with, enlighten and disparage him as she delves into the history of Shakespeare performance in Bengal.
Anya Banerjee's play is a discourse on the nature of British colonialism, partition, the subjugation of Bengal, the place of women in society then and now, the schisms between different groups and lifestyles there, with space made to ponder the vying natures of being Bengali and British in the modern world. Needless to say, there are a lot of ideas going on in this play. Which the play lets you know, as it has a tendency towards the didactic that borders on descending into lecture at various points throughout.
Although this is clearly part of the setup, as the entire situation is ostensibly going on in the scholarly head of the titular Bengali Woman, it doesn't help the narrative flow. There are frequent moments in the first half of the play where the conversations are rather clunky, with The Bard replying to some accusation with a line or quote that is simply the lead-in to another lecture-like polemic from the academic.
That said, much of the information being dropped is fascinating and enlightening. Banerjee's performance is nuanced and, despite spending much of the runtime being somewhat condescending, her academic remains likeable. McInerney has the less admirable task of playing both Shakespeare as well as various characters who embody crass colonialism or racism. Which leads to the surprising decision to have a significant chunk of the performance with him as a Great War era Scottish soldier in Bengal, suffering from PTSD and trying to find succour and meaning with Tarasundari (an actress and prostitute who performed Shakespeare at that time). While this part makes sense as being a part of the academic's thesis, it goes on for rather too long and ultimately leads to a slightly unsatisfying conclusion.
For a first play, this is still an interesting piece of work and of clear import in highlighting a plethora of issues and topics. It's clear that Banerjee could well be an important new voice in theatre writing and this is far from a stumble at the first hurdle.
Reviewer: Graeme Strachan