“Gar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast”
Interesting art can transcend basic notions of comprehension, cutting deep to a visceral place of goosebumps and adrenalin rushes that crosses linguistic barriers, just listening to this recital of a piece of Sufi poetry moves me in an unexpectedly extraordinary way even after repeated listens. The above quote of another piece also by poet Amir Khusro (If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here) which prefaces Abhishek Majumdar’s complex Kashmir-set play The Djinns of Eidgah which provoked a similar reaction in me upstairs at the Royal Court.
Not that the play isn’t in English, but rather its reach is ambitiously grand and encompasses subjects that I would be a fool to profess any substantial knowledge of. Through the trials of young Kashmiri orphans Ashrafi and Bilal, Majumdar’s writing explores the state of being ‘inbetween’ – whether in the brutal, and ongoing, realities of being torn between India and Pakistan; or in the fable-like hinterland between life and death, explored through the Central Asian oral history tradition of dastaan and the legends of Amir Hamza. Reality and fantasy are intermingled, politics and people dissected, both head and heart engaged to create a melancholic minor masterpiece.
18 year old Bilal, a beautifully restrained performance from Danny Ashok, is determined to use his footballing prowess as an escape into something better for him and his sister, but as he gets caught up in the violent protests of which his team-mates are an integral part, even the act of pulling on a footballing jersey becomes political. And whilst her brother is caught up in realpolitik, his 14 year old little sister Ashrafi, a quietly intense Aysha Kala, has regressed back to being a child due to the trauma of her father’s death, finding refuge in a world of storytelling, of magical djinns and epic adventures, but even these all link back to the troubled beauty of their homeland.
There are other characters too, who present other sides and approaches to the conflict. Vincent Ebrahim’s impassioned Dr Baig – the psychiatrist treating Ashrafi – whose pacifist tendencies are challenged by the militancy of his son, a product of a radicalised generation determined to win freedom by any means. Ebrahim anchors the most moving scene of the play where a seemingly innocuous game of free association becomes heart-rendingly painful. There’s excellent work too from Jaz Deol and Paul Bazely as a pair of soldiers, hapless in the enormity of the situation which they are called on to defend and from the glorious Ayesha Dharker, from whom words tumble as fast and clean as from a Hindu Kush mountain stream.
Director Richard Twyman handles the ever-changing terrain of the play well, slipping from the real world to the imagined and back again with a silken ease that relishes its ambiguous notes, Tom Scutt’s design allows for an effective evocation of the space inbetween as well as the more pragmatic demands of other scenes, and David McSeveney’s soundscape along with Benedict Taylor’s compositions keep the threat of the outside always present, whether marauding protesters ready to launch stones or the unknown presence in the netherworld. I may not have been able to appreciate some of the finer nuances of the writing, but everything marries together into an immersive world that is hauntingly appealing and genuinely thought-provoking, moving me in a more elemental way than many a piece of theatre has managed this year.