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October 23, 2013 5:56 pm
Abhishek Majumdar’s haunting play, receiving its UK premiere at the Royal Court, exemplifies what theatre can bring to our understanding of the most grievous conflicts in the world. We are aware that most long-running disputes are weighed down by layers of grief and tangled history. Majumdar, an Indian playwright, brings us a little closer to what it is like to live with that legacy.
His subject is Kashmir and his focus is, on one level, tight and domestic. He portrays two teenagers (Bilal and Ashrafi) and a psychiatric doctor (Dr Baig), all of whom are trying to cope with the continuing violence. But he also weaves in ancient legends and storytelling techniques, so giving a tangible sense of the presence of history, belief and the dead. It is a play that dramatises the plight of what Dr Baig calls “the people of in-between” and it does so partly by shifting itself between the real and spirit worlds.
All the characters hope for freedom, but what does that mean? For Bilal (Danny Ashok), a talented 18-year-old footballer, it is the chance to play for Brazil and escape from Kashmir with his badly traumatised 14-year-old sister Ashrafi (Aysha Kala). For Khaled (Raj Bajaj), Bilal’s friend, it means independence for the country and revolt against the Indian army. For Dr Baig (Vincent Ebrahim), it means freedom from the cycles of violence and from the personal horror of what happened to his son, who joined the Mujahideen. When an imminent football trial clashes with street protests, matters come to a head for all of them.
Tom Scutt’s set, an unfinished Kashmiri carpet on the ground, a vast loom overhead, frames this richly woven piece, in which djinns (spirits) converse with mortals and mortals struggle with torn feelings. Richard Twyman stages it deftly, balancing the many strands, and there are immensely touching performances from Ashok and Kala, while Ebrahim is excellent as Dr Baig. There’s humour when Bilal plays soccer without a ball or when two reluctant Indian soldiers gripe about their food rations. But the play is also unflinching in depicting the random violence that erupts in such a volatile atmosphere. It’s undeniably dense and a couple of arguments feel awkwardly engineered. But it builds to a painfully moving climax in which Dr Baig offers up a prayer that might speak for many people worldwide: “Where do I begin my faith my maker . . . by healing my children or by fighting their war?”
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