Slumdog millionaires: National Theatre’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (NTLive)

Better known for his political plays, British playwright David Hare has turned to Katherine Boo’s account of life under a Mumbai flight path in Behind the Beautiful Forevers to create an epic piece of theatre, whose scale and integrity is clearly defined at the outset and maintained throughout. And while its story is compelling, it lacks the strong emotional pull which is so present in some of Hare’s other plays, the hook which would make us care more about the plight of these characters, these people.

Filmed in London, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the National Theatre’s latest offering on their National Theatre Live initiative, and as I’ve mentioned before, it’s hard not to be a bit jealous of the resources and stage-craft of these companies. An epic in physical stage-size as well as the breadth and range of its story, ‘Forevers’ is staged in the National’s Olivier theatre, on a set by Katrina Lindsey which evokes the life and hardships of living in Annawadi, the makeshift slum next door to the Mumbai airport. There’s a tangible sense of the dust, the heat, the cobbled-together houses from tin and bricks, the ever-present shadow of the airport and nearby hotels never far behind the houses in the inky blackness of the stage.
Hare’s normally-searing politically-based intellect is here tempered with a hard-edged realism, an unsanitised portrait of life in one of the India’s slums. Intelligent and visceral, Hare’s characters address the audience in direct address at frequent intervals throughout the first act (and less frequently in the second), with large chunks of dialogue little more than exposition necessary to set up the story behind the ‘beautiful forevers’ which adorn posters above the houses. In this regard, the play is slow to get off the ground, slow to find its rhythm; it’s only after Fatima sets herself alight and retribution is sought that the play starts to find its feet as a window into one family’s negotiations with corruption as they try to keep a hold on their lot. The second half, while slow, builds slowly to a climax which breaks in a rather Dickensian way. The Dickensian analogy also carries across in Hare’s structuring of the play – as a series of what are essentially two- or three-hander scenes – switching between the two or three different families and their trials and struggles. It is still very much ‘a play by David Hare’ – his trademark one-liners and quips appear every now and again, and they help to lighten a rather seriously-minded play – but the production by and large misses the energy and the vibrancy of the setting.
Director Rufus Norris directs with a clear eye, keeping everything moving, cleverly switching the play’s energy from story to story, but he only brings the energy of Annawadi to the stage in the transitions and scene changes. Bursts of loud music bustle with life and vigour, and the stage is awash with the twenty-three strong cast crisscrossing the stage in a whirl of motion and activity and it works. It’s only once the movement and noise settles that we realise that the energy is missing from Norris’ staging; if present, it could have elevated Hare’s intellectual and politically-minded script into a state of theatricality which would have made it hum and vibrate with aliveness. Norris’ cast are all tremendous; it’s not often we see a cast of twenty-three in Australia and, as with the scale of this production, it is something to be admired. The cast, too, are all of British-Indian heritage, and it lends the production a realness, the appearance of verisimilitude which wouldn’t be out of place in a documentary.

While others have argued that Hare and Norris and company are more concerned with the audience’s enjoyment of the play rather than the plight of its characters, I would argue that it is in fact the other way around. While the depth of empathy and emotional connection might not be present, we still do feel for the characters – for Sunil, standing on the bridge in the dawn light, searching for the rubbish no one else is brave enough to attempt to reach; for Meena’s desperate last-ditch attempt to escape the reality of her life; for Asha and her daughter Manju as they try to earn a living amongst the corruption; for Zehrunisa and Karam and their family, as they try to maintain their dignity in the face of the ongoing trial and increasingly exorbitant bribery payments; in Abdul’s neverending quest for honesty and integrity… These are people who are tested daily, hourly, every minute, and by and large they still manage to survive. That must count for something.

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