BRAVELY FOUGHT THE QUEEN
BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 9 April, 1996

Mahesh Dattani apparently has a growing reputation as a playwright in his native India. This first overseas production of one of his plays (under the aegis of Michael Walling's Border Crossings company) demonstrates that Dattani is a strong and skilful enough writer to do without the presentational gimmickry which too frequently detracts from his and Walling's production.

Bravely Fought The Queen is set in present-day Bangalore, in one of twin houses on an executive estate where sisters Dolly and Alka await the return of their husbands from the struggling ad agency which they run. The cast of characters is closely knit: husbands Jiten and Nitin are also brothers; their bedridden and demented matriarch Baa is upstairs in the house, casting a shadow over the action with her by turns clear and crazily skewed perspective; an absent brother and daughter propel events as much as the characters onstage. The witnesses to these increasingly tragic entanglements are the brothers' sole employee and his wife.

Act One, "Women", is largely a comedy of manners played between glacial elder sister Dolly (a nicely restrained Siddiqua Akhtar), mischievous dipsomaniac Alka and their unexpected visitor, the skittish, ill-at-ease Lalitha. Its final rhapsodic movement paves the way for the second act, in which Jiten is revealed as comprehensively unsympathetic a violent lecher whose approach to business is a combination of brainless obstinacy and clumsy scams. Jiten's character is the most one-dimensionally written, and not helped by Harmage Singh Kalirai's performance, which delivers too much too soon; Dhirendra's first chance to establish Nitin as a full character comes after the interval, when the burden of his status as Baa's favourite is revealed along with a slew of other family secrets. Nattani follows the standard dramatic formula drink + claustrophobia = uncomfortable revelations with more than a hint of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, but adroitly cuts between "normal" family tensions, Baa's ever more feverish delusions and the desperately concealed truths.

It is a fine piece of writing, but this production's staging throws in several additional elements: the periphery of the white-floored central playing area is used both as an all-purpose exterior and as a kind of limbo through which characters process and in which they exercise traditional Indian dance movements in stylised slow-motion; a video monitor in the room displays both act titles and extreme close-ups of various anatomical regions, finally cutting between the rain of Act Three falling upon a Buddha statue and apparently random scenes from historical movies. These touches seem intended to illustrate the general situation of both Baa's family and the culture of this social group in general, poised between heritage and modernity, but primarily they end up bemusing and distracting attention from the drama itself.

Nevertheless, on this showing Dattani's work deserves to be seen more widely, especially if elsewhere in his writing and staging he refrains from throwing in unnecessary tangential ingredients and trusts to his evident central skills.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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