Anya Chalotra and the company in 'The Village' at Theatre Royal Stratford Eas
Anya Chalotra, middle, and the company in 'The Village' at Theatre Royal Stratford Eas © Johan Persson

Fall has begun, and not just on the trees in America. The Village marks the start of a fresh chapter under new artistic director Nadia Fall at this red and gold jewel box of a theatre in east London. Her inaugural season opens with a pleasingly ambitious show: a classic play given a sharp contemporary twist. April De Angelis’s The Village is drawn from Lope de Vega’s Spanish Golden Age drama Fuenteovejuna, relocating it to 21st-century India. It’s a show that unites past and present, honours Joan Littlewood’s legacy (she staged Fuenteovejuna here) and brings to the stage a large British-Asian cast.

In a sense, it is quite shocking that the move fits so neatly. The story of a rural community defying brutal authority was based by de Vega on a real-life incident from 1476. And yet this tale of rape, violence and defiance slips all too easily into a contemporary setting, while the themes — political corruption, xenophobia, division — are all chillingly resonant.

The Village follows broadly the same narrative as the original. Here a struggle for power between rival political leaders turns particularly ugly when a crooked police inspector, working for the more conservative and nationalistic candidate, terrorises the small village of Sahaspur, sewing hostility between Muslim and Hindu workers and abusing the women. When he brutally rapes 16-year-old Jyoti (who is set to marry local young Muslim, Farooq), the tide turns. The villagers finally rebel, ripping their tormentor to shreds, and, even under torture, refuse to name names.

It’s an uplifting tale of a community rising up against oppression, tempered with a warning that violence breeds violence. As a piece of theatre, however, it is a little hit and miss. De Angelis retains passages of rhyming verse that don’t sit very easily, and the scenes between political figures feel thin. Art Malik, a fine actor, plays the villainous police officer with more thuggish swagger than real, cold menace.

Where both play and production really lift off, though, is with the villagers. Fall and her cast create a vibrant sense of kinship, and the scenes in which Anya Chalotra as Jyoti and Rina Fatania (very funny) as her droll, straight-talking friend discuss the merits of a good dinner over a husband are wonderful. Chalotra is excellent, transforming from candid, carefree young girl into traumatised, avenging orator. There’s a lovely performance too from Souad Faress as a wise widow.

With striking use of movement (Polly Bennett) and music (Niraj Chag), Fall’s staging delivers a powerful message about resistance with stirring theatricality and wit. A few flaws aside, it’s an exciting and promising start.

★★★★☆

To October 6, stratfordeast.com

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