Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London SW1
Opened 12 November, 2007

Theatrically speaking, not a lot goes on during the 75 minutes of Anupama Chandrasekhar's play. People grow increasingly distraught about an act we did not see performed by a character who never appears onstage. In a way, though, that is the point. The socially conservative Tamil city of Chennai in which the play is set may differ in degree, but not in nature, from so many other cultures in which the misfortunes of others are just fodder for the media mill. Here, a 15-year-old girl's after-school tryst is captured on a phonecam video which then spreads virally. The result is that the unseen Deepa becomes notorious across India as "the MMS girl", and everyone has an opinion on her and her family, who come under media siege.

Over seven days, we watch Deepa's widowed mother Malini first grow ever more strident in her condemnation of anyone else to hand: the school principal, her less favoured elder child Sharan, the family of the boy involved, or modern culture in general (in a frenzy, she cuts the plug off the family television, though the computer is left working since it drives a later scene). Later, in her attempts to find a way out for the family, she almost even offers herself to the office nebbish if he will smuggle Deepa out past the reporters. In the end, she sees no alternative but to collaborate with a tawdry TV programme.

Indhu Rubasingham's production contains some fine performances, from Lolita Chakrabarti's all but constant presence as Malini to Shelley King's single scene as the headteacher. In other respects, the staging is too decorous: we never get any sense of the depredations of hygiene and thirst wrought on the family and the entire complex they live in when the media scrum interrupts water supplies. But those are not the conditions that the play is ultimately addressing. Rather, the characters, and Malini in particular, serve as emblems of a global culture which on the one hand fetishises innocence and virtue, tries to preserve them through prohibition and denial, yet is also voraciously prurient about transgressions of these supposedly sacred values. Good old us, all of us. Mind you, Rubasingham misses a topical trick in not making the crucial prop an iPhone.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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