The theatre in Scottish Television's Gateway building in Edinburgh has become a Festival venue this year, beginning with Tamasha Theatre Company's production A Tainted Dawn. Following the company's success with Ayub Khan-Din's East Is East, director Kristine Landon-Smith, co-writer Sudha Bhuchar and the company have fashioned what is less a celebration of Indian independence for its fiftieth anniversary than a meditation upon the human tragedies caused by the partition which followed it.
Drawing on a clutch of short stories by various writers as well as on company improvisations, Landon-Smith has assembled a dramatic mosaic. Some scenes – the simmering communal prejudice in a crowded train compartment, the grim comedy of a couple of Parsee corpse-bearers facing a vulture shortage because the birds have abandoned the funeral grounds to pick over the victims of rioting – stand alone, others form episodic narratives. With only eight actors, they nevertheless manage to convey at least a microcosm of the terrible scale of human displacement as even the supposedly enlightened middle classes came to abandon hope in the ideals of secularism.
The violence of "the troubles" is present almost entirely through suggestion; what we see are the effects in terms of sundered familes, individuals migrating to Hindu-Sikh India or Muslim Pakistan sometimes as an act of affirmation but more often out of compulsion or despair, pilgrimages made years afterwards to former homes only for those returning to find towns unrecognisable and houses reduced to rubble. The most poignant of the plotlines is based upon Bhisham Sahni's Pali, in which a Hindu boy separated from his parents in flight is adopted by a Muslim couple; although prejudice and bigotry are outweighed by a concern for blood ties when the boy is tracked down after seven years, even this is not a happy ending, as the Hindu community in which his natural parents live refuse to accommodate his reassimilation.
The diffuseness which is often a hallmark of devised work leads to no weakness here: it is plainly impossible to portray the experience in a single linear story. Members of the ensemble subsume themselves in the process of painting the fabric with a host of characters. In the end we sense not only the privations of partition, but the determination of individuals to carve out lives for themselves; the taint of what has gone before may darken the dawn, but cannot wholly obscure it.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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