Behind the Beautiful Forevers, David Hare’s new play adapted from Katherine Boo’s book of the same title and directed by Rufus Norris, is set in the slumps of Mumbai, in the shadow of big hotels and the international airport. As with all stories with a strong sense of place, it opens up to universal understanding. I immediately saw its relevance, even though I can’t speak of its authenticity. (Shamefully my experience of Mumbai and its slumps is limited to watching Slumdog Millionaire. Which is no experience at all). On the other hand, the feel of the play authenticates against itself: it’s a real world. And not a happy one.
It’s easy to say the play is grim, more difficult to explain why. Grim is the wrong word. It creates tension between the energy of the place (high-octane, outspoken, confident) and perceptions (or preconceptions) of the situation: the darkness isn’t due to poverty (that would be patronising) nor the awful things happening throughout the story. Poverty is ever present but lack of resources doesn’t equal lack of resilience, not always, and these people are nothing if not resilient. But, and this is the astonishingly grim fact, poor and rich have learned the same wrong lesson. Learned it in different ways (the rich with a silver spoon in their mouth, the poor with a kick in the teeth) but the same lesson nevertheless: the road to happiness involves screwing other people. This dark thought pollinates small sins and tragedy multiplies.
If the adults have learned the wrong lesson, that leaves the children, superheroes in this strange Gotham. Thought is their superpower, often referred to as an act of rebellion, as life in itself. Sunil, Abdul, Manju, Meena and Kehkashan are clear-eyed with an uncompromising understanding of something they can’t always express. When they do, it’s a glorious open-hearted moment: By daring to think and say the obvious, Abdul unites an unruly energy and chases the darkness away. It might be the start of something, or maybe nothing. But it’s the moment the play is more than a vicious and inescapable cycle.
In the end, the tension is between the corrupting influence of life, and a strange kind of innocence, knowledgable beyond young years but still untamed. In the first half, when wrong choices and social pressures created an ever narrower tunnel of vision, I felt suffocated. In the second half I started to feel the opening of hope. I still think the dramatic cards are stacked the wrong way and the message is grimmer – and harder to engage – than intended. Or they are stacked the right way, the only way, and we are all screwed.
There is fine work from the 22-strong cast: Meera Syal’s Zehrunisa is sad without realising, a fine balance of being conceited, defeated and loving. Stephanie Street’s Asha combines merciless pragmatism with vulnerability, the more merciless she is, the more defenseless she becomes. Shane Zaza’s Abdul has a beautiful, intense stillness that can center the world. Anjana Vasan’s Manju has a piercing fire in her gaze, Hiran Abeysekera’s Sunil an engaging kind of confidence, part flashy bravado, part unwavering power.
The set is all brightness and colours. Concrete, cardboard and plastic never looked so kaleidoscopic, yet Katrina Lindsay’s design walks the fine line of being brilliantly animated without creating a fairy tale. The scale of the operation is magnificently evoked, never less so than in the shadow of flying aeroplanes. The action is chaotic, yet specifically structured. This isn’t merely a theatrical convention, it’s the way of this world: it’s not coincidence that William Congreve’s The Way of the World is mentioned.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers often left me adrift, occasionally hopeless. It’s strange saying this, because nothing in the production directly probs those feelings. Am I unaccustomed to an uncompromising gaze? Or is it darker out there than anyone realises?
Weird thought of the day: my friend – who works at the National theatre – said staff had been collecting their empty plastic bottles for weeks, so they can be used as props. The DNA of everyone at the National might be on stage. Quite literally.