April De Angelis
Theatre Royal, Stratford East
Nadia Fall launches her inaugural season as Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal with her own production of a new play from April De Angelis. It is described as “after Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Vega” and borrows key elements of the plot of the 17th-century Spanish classic about a tyrannical lord and the village which rises up against him, transposing them to modern India. It is a clear piece of storytelling, colourfully told.
Fuenteovejuna becomes Sahaspur (Courage), a village in northern India, and de Vega’s Commander Guzman a corrupt police chief, Inspector Gangwar, his campaign to claim territory for Portugal becoming a political campaign to win an election. Although there is a real Sahaspur in Uttar Pradesh, this one is fictional, but political interference and the misuse of police powers have been issues in India where rape is the fourth most common crime. The relocation does have contemporary resonance and is certainly up to date with references to Trump, Putin and British Food Banks.
The play opens with Gangwar (Art Malik) and his men meeting the student son of a recently deceased politician at the local airport. The young man (Naeem Hayat) is expected to stand as a candidate for his father’s constituency, where corrupt Gangwar and the dead man had been hand-in-glove.
In Sahaspur, teenage Jyoti is being teased by her friend Panna because Gangwar has been sending her gifts—but he isn’t liked and is known to force himself on girls who “come back all belly and tears,” half the village could say, “me too”. Panna is Rina Fantania, a Stratford favourite, and she and Ameet Chana as fellow villager Mango form a comic duo who add a light touch to a dark story.
Though she says she finds food much more interesting than men, Jyoti seems to welcome the attentions of Farooq (Scott Karim) despite the fact that he is Muslim and she Hindu. This is a village where, despite Partition, the two religions happily co-exist (though the Inspector would like to drive all Muslims out).
The Inspector is a rapist villain but Malik’s strong performance avoids the melodramatic, even as he forces himself on Anya Chalotra’s bright and innocent Jyoti, dragging her from her wedding. The ordeal turns her into an empowered and vengeful woman.
Sudha Bhuchar plays the rival Hindu progressive candidate, an intriguing political portrait, who, perhaps a little unrealistically, is given the power to dispenses pardons, just like de Vega’s royalty.
All else is all too plausible, told in verse that bounces with internal rhymes. Joanna Scotcher’s somewhat stylized setting allows fast changes of location and a staging that moves from the naturalistic to a ritualistic choreography for the actual uprising in a wordless scene that isn’t in the playscript but has tremendous impact. After it, the women are described as Bacchantes and that is exactly the effect amid clouds of red dust, a thunderstorm of lighting and Niraj Chag’s score.
Fuenteovejuna is a link back to the Theatre Royal’s history for Theatre Workshop presented it, as The Sheep Well, in 1936 and revived it in 1955 after Joan Littlewood moved the company to Stratford while the Indian setting has more recent precedents. The theatre has been spruced up with a more modern look to its front of house that will appeal to regenerated Stratford’s more trendy incomers but it hasn’t turned its back on the past.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton