Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London
There’s something deeply disturbing about sitting in a comfortable western theatre bearing witness to the dire poverty lived elsewhere in the world. That, of course, is the power of theatre and it’s a testament to Rufus Norris’ blazing production, the assiduity of journalist Katherine Boo’s dedication in the slums of Mumbai and David Hare’s smooth adaptation that it has such a conscience pricking effect.
Boo, a staff writer with the New Yorker, won the PEN/Galbraith Award for her book based on three years spent with the community living under the flight-path of Mumbai’s International Airport during the 2008 global recession.
Now, in its stage manifestation, Behind the Beautiful Forevers swirls with life, death and everything in between. In its colour and vivacity, Norris’s production pays homage to those who daily attempt to eke out a precarious livelihood in one of the world’s fastest growing economies whilst the airlines zoom in, bringing tourists to marvel at India’s cultural wonders.
Beneath them is another story which Behind the Beautiful Forevers brings into stark relief with simple reminders. As western banks fail, so in Mumbai, the price of plastic bottles falls from twenty-five to ten rupees a kilo. For Sunil and Abdul, two Annawadi `pickers’ for whom picking up plastic bags is a major source of income, it spells disaster. But dealing in metal, a higher valued commodity risks death. There is a hierarchy and retribution, if you cross the line, is swift and brutal.
But in essence, Behind the beautiful Forevers is the story of a neighbourhood and pulsating as such with all the personalities it produces. Unusually, too, it is largely a women’s and mothers’ story – their desperation, their often cruel ingenuity to survive in it. And the price their daughters pay.
If the production’s life-enhancing intention sometimes leads to too close juxtaposition of the tragic with the comic in the midst of deprivation, official corruption, self-immolation and movingly, Abdul’s desire to lead a better life – an aspiration, which as he puts it is impossible in his world – it still remains a shocking, heart-breaking, extraordinary production led by Meera Syal, that should be required viewing. Wonderful.
First published online in Reviewsgate in Nov 2014