A mogul tent stands in the Grand Hall of BAC, with a small bazaar outside it; even the Victorian-classical statuary in the lobby has been garlanded and sari'd. The former town hall of Battersea – the constituency represented by Britain's first Asian M.P. some 70 years ago – is an appropriate venue for the first of the three plays intended to form Tara Arts' millennium project, as Exodus is a portrait of the Kenyan Asian community who arrived in Britain in 1968 to beat legislation which would shortly deprive these British citizens of their right of abode.
Director Jatinder Verma (himself one such 1968 arrival) and his company interviewed many of those who came here at that time; the final script, shaped by Neil Biswas, focuses on the intertwining stories for a decade before and after migration of three fictitious families, and in particular their children – Ramesh, Liaquat and Sitara (played respectively by Ravin J. Ganatra, Murali Menon and Harvey Virdi). It is at this point that I begin to have trouble with Verma's strategy. Granted, it is easier for drama to examine Big Issues in microcosm, as reflected in a few individuals' lives... but to reduce the broad and numerous social ramifications of such an event to a series of more or less sentimental theatrical snapshots is to err on the side of digestibility. We are invited to concern ourselves more about whether Liaquat will ever again encounter his beloved Sitara than how he will bear casual, Neanderthal racist abuse even from former work colleagues. Only Ramesh's resolution to take charge of his own history hints at an exciting blend of the "macro-" and "micro-" levels, but it remains only a hint; we see no more than the beginning of the process.
Snatches of audio and video are employed in passing rather than as integral components of the piece. Most unsettlingly, a tape of Enoch Powell's fulmination that "it is when [the Englishman] looks into the eyes of the Asian that he sees one who would dispute with him the possession of his native land" is played without any kind of direct dramatic comment – it does not even inform the scenes immediately following. Such nadirs of the British reception given to the rivals as this and a racist murder in Southall in 1976 are displayed merely as individual threads in a larger fabric... which would be fine, if that larger fabric were fascinatingly patterned. Sadly, it is merely agreeable rather than compelling.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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