Red Oleander

Rabindranath Tagore
Myriad Productions
Camden People's Theatre
(2006)

Red Oleanders is a powerful and poignant play where commercial exploitation, oppression, power, love and obsession operate on different levels and manifest themselves in different shades.

Kevin Rowntree, true to the text, sets the play in a wasteland of the fictitious city of Yakshapuri, with an Indian/Bengali flavour where gold miners are being exploited by a tyrannical king. The cast of six actors, each from a different cultural background, act in more than one role.

We are in the Fortress of Kubera. A white chain-link wire fence runs from floor to ceiling: a double gate held together by a chain and padlock dominates the stage. Behind the locked gates dwells a king (Sally Okafour), a formidable tyrant who keeps himself hidden so he may 'plunder the earth's great treasure-houses'. His executioner Sardar (Aiman Zahabi) instils fear and a sense of degradation in the wretched lives of the miners so no thought of rebellion or protest may cross their minds.

Okafour, a young and talented actress plays the king as well as four other characters in this production. Her vigour, passion and powerful command of her vocal chords compensate for a lack of physical stature when performing as the king. Rowntree alludes to the physical strength of the king by placing three actors behind Okafour where they all move in synch with her arms and torso, as if in a dance. They move not to music but to the thunder of her voice which, on occasion, they accompany as an echo.

The main protagonist is Nandini (Shani Peretz). Her distinctive feature is the red oleanders she wears in her hair, round her neck and on her wrist which become the symbol of the all-powerful treasure - freedom. Her beauty mesmerises men regardless of their position or rank. She exudes fearless love, care and belief in freedom. She challenges the king whose passion for her unlocks some humanity in him as he confesses that despite all he has, he is empty and envies her and the man she loves, Ranjan.

He dares not let her into his barbed realm as he fears her beauty and power may weaken his hold (she is after all the voice of love, beauty, and allurement to freedom). But finally, his desire to 'know her' conquers his desire for power. She, in turn, fears his desire 'to know her'.

Peretz's oriental beauty together with her charm and her calm, beckoning smile make her perfect for the part, while her passionate speeches calling desperately but resolutely for the miners to break away from the tyranny is moving.

Her presence in Yakshapuri creates consternation among some of the slaving miners and their masters. Chandra (Chandana Banerjee), Phagulal's (David Furlong) wife, represents the pragmatic woman who cannot tolerate the effect Nandini has on the local men. She begs to return home, but her pleading falls on deaf ears - the men are addicted to gold and even if they were to return home they would eventually return to the mines. Chandana's looks, accent and demeanour superbly communicated the image of the village Bengali woman.

Bishu (Sadao Ueda), also known in the mines as "69-U", deliberates on the meaning of their existence. He is an educated cynic, a thinker and, above all, a man desperately in love with Nandini. Ueda, a Japanese actor, manages to convey the pain and grief of a man's sorrow and desperate longing for a woman he cannot have.

The workers' uprising, expressed by the sound of hammers tapping on oil drums, was ominous and effective.

Written in 1925 by the Nobel Prize Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the play is demanding and challenging. The drama exists more in the thoughts articulated rather than in any actual physical action on stage.

Rowntree's achievement in this production must be applauded particularly in the face of constraints imposed by the location in which the play was staged. The play would undoubtedly benefit from a more up-to-date translation which should assist the audience to follow the thoughts and ideas embedded in this fascinating play.

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson