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There is a great and welcome impulse behind this staging. Written by David Hare, directed by incoming National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris, it seizes on the potential of the vast Olivier stage to act as a public arena. It places centre stage some of the poorest people on the planet, people more used to being determinedly ignored but whose lives are inextricably bound up with our own in the globalised economy. It’s a humane, epic and politically alert response to the way we live now. As drama, though, it struggles somewhat to reach its own potential.
Hare’s play draws on Katherine Boo’s nonfiction book of the same name: a superb piece of reportage about the slum community subsisting on the rubbish generated around Mumbai’s gleaming airport. In Boo’s detailed account, the residents – the industrious scavengers, pickers and sorters at the rough end of global capitalism – are drawn with compassion but without sentimentality as they use whatever ingenuity they can to haul themselves out of poverty.
On stage these pragmatic and resilient individuals come to vibrant life with their strikingly divergent approaches to survival. The production is studded with excellent performances and dark humour. We meet Asha, the fixer (Stephanie Street), a woman whose compassion comes at a price. We meet tough bargainer Zehrunisa Husain (Meera Syal) and her diligent son Abdul (Shane Zaza), a brilliant rubbish sorter, old before his time. We meet Sunil (Hiran Abeysekera), capricious, courageous and foolish. Around them, Norris fills the cavernous stage with noise and teeming life and offers tantalising glimpses of the jet planes and skyscrapers of a rapidly evolving India.
But the very scale of the enterprise begins to hamper it. Without the complex texture of the book, dilemmas can appear simplified. Narrative thrust comes from a quarrel that turns nasty and propels the hard-working Husains into the hands of a corrupt police force to be mercilessly fleeced. But this nightmarish story has to be delivered at a jog, so much so that crooked officials become almost cartoonish. Scale may be necessary to create this seething world, but here the balance between scale and detail goes awry.
It’s a mixed bag, then, that doesn’t quite pull off its demanding balancing act. But the fearless scope and subject on show here suggest that the National under Norris could be an ambitious and engaged space.