The House of In Between

Sevan K Greene
Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Akash Heer, Lucie Shorthouse as Dev, Ashraf Ejjbair, Shalini Peiris and Gary Wood Credit: Robert Day
Gary Wood and Vikash Bhai as the Hijras' client Credit: Robert Day
Esh Alladi as Uma and Vikash Bhai as policeman Credit: Robert Day
Shalini Peiris, Ashraf Ejjbair and Akash Heer Credit: Robert Day

This is an intriguing story of a Hijra clan in the Indian city of Patna. It is presented with flair and a colourful mix of music, dance and visual effects to support a melodramatic story.

Hijra are a feature of Indian and Pakistani culture that goes back thousands of years. They may be thought of as born intersex, transsexual, eunuchs, or transvestite but, though born men and now living as women, the true Hijra is more strictly described as having no gender for they must go through a ritual removal of male organs on committing themselves to Hijra life, a life that was traditionally devoted to the aesthetic and the divine.

Mentioned in the ancient Hindu sagas of the Ramayana and Maharabata and once having high status in Mughal courts, they later faced ostracism from the general community and were classed as criminal by the British Raj though still carrying an aura of holiness which made them a welcome presence to dance, give blessings and bring fertility and good luck at marriage celebrations, births and other ceremonies.

Once perhaps dependent, like monks, on charitable support and patrons, prostitution became another source of income.

The clan in The House of In Between is led by Uma (powerfully played by Esh Alladi), a traditionalist who wants to preserve their traditional way of living, resistant to such offers as that made by Patna city to earn a commission by accompanying officials collecting unpaid taxes, their presence presumably intimidating the defaulters. A guru figure for the younger Hijra she has found them a patron.

This Hijra “family” is made up of Akash Heer as Uma’s closest friend, her youth behind her, Gary Wood as lead dancer and prime attraction for their patron who wants to become his wife, Ashraf Ejjbair as its flamboyant, least responsible member and Shalini Peiris as a real woman who choreographs their dances.

There is a back-story about another member, its disruptive and tragic detail revealed in glimpses that is linked to the arrival of a boy at their door seeking sanctuary whom Uma takes in. This is Dev, whom the audience discovers long before the Hijras, is not a boy at all. (S)he turns out to have dance talent and attracts their patron’s interest, creating jealousy and disruption that leads to rape, a killing, torture and the breakup of the Hijra household.

This plot is presumably intended as a microcosm of the situation of the Hijras in modern Indian life, tradition set against contemporary realities, at a time when India (like Pakistan) has legally recognized a third gender but in 2013 recriminalized homosexuality.

As it escalates into soap opera melodrama, The House of In Between gives little chance to explore Hijra lives more deeply, provide some understanding of them, a real context; one scene showing them outside in public tells us nothing. Such deficiencies go unnoticed when caught up in director Pooja Ghai’s lively production.

The cast however make these Hijras seem real, the tensions between them living. Vikash Bhai is unrecognizably different as their patron, a sadistic bribed policeman and a local official, and if you begin to suspect that Lucie Shorthouse’s Dev is not a boy, that’s as it should be.

Designer Diego Pitarch’s setting of sliding gauze screens, painted as flaking plaster with murals of gods that Tapio Snellman’s projections turn into street scenes, smart coffee bar or burning inferno, and James Whiteside’s lighting and glittering saris with stunning visual effect. This isn’t a musical but Seeta Patel’s choreography with Arun Ghosh’s music as the Hijra rehearse their dances or perform for their client is an integral part of the performance.

This, Pooja Ghai’s first production since taking up her role as the theatre’s Associate Director, is an exciting main stage debut.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton