“The world doesn’t work in our favour”
Rufus Norris is set to take over the artistic directorship of the National Theatre in April next year but makes an admirably bold move in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Adapted by David Hare from the 2012 non-fiction work of the same name by Katherine Boo, who spent three years living, investigating and writing about life in the Indian slum of Annawadi which lies in the shadow of Mumbai airport, it’s sprawling and scrappy yet epic and enlightening as it elucidates something of what it means to be this far below the poverty line. It is rarely comfortable viewing but its unflinching and unsentimental approach feels essential.
Whether accurate or overemphasised, a strongly matriarchal societal structure emerges in this version of Annawadi as wives and mothers seize the initiative in the face of feckless husbands and sheer necessity. Which results in the pleasing preponderance of excellent female roles – Stephanie Street’s Sikh Asha is the fixer for the entire neighbourhood, putting work at the expense of even a special birthday party her kids have put on; Thusitha Jayasundera’s crippled Fatima is a cyclone of malevolent anger that dominates her household; and Meera Syal’s practical Zehrunisa looks set to secure her family’s future out of the slum with some canny deal-making.
It is interesting to see how poverty actually has something of a levelling effect in terms of gender here – where resourcefulness is king, it is simply the most enterprising who wear the crown, man or woman. It is only when they have to deal with the outside world that traditional roles have to be assumed and it is quite distressing to see how Zehrunisa has to repress almost every natural instinct to present an acceptable figure at the police station in order to gain access to visiting hours, Syal almost shrinking herself under the headscarf. Likewise, financial independence comes at a high price for Asha, Street exuding a steely flintiness as her idealistic daughter discovers and challenges her actions.
But it’s not just the women under the spotlight here. We see young men like Shane Zaza’s Abdul and Hiran Abeysekera’s Sunil fighting to make their mark in the garbage collecting business and debating lines of morality about stolen goods, we see the middle classes working to secure their own economic futures through corrupt practices like Nathalie Armin’s grasping government official and Chook Sibtain’s ever-hungry police officer, we see the varying optimism of young girls like Anjana Vasan’s Manju, Anjli Mohindra’s Kehkashan and Anneika Rose’s highly affecting Meena as they contemplate the futures available in a society that can’t change quickly enough for them.
Katrina Lindsay’s mutable set design exploits the height and depth of the Olivier to bring a worthy sense of scale to the size of this slum whilst nifty video work from Jack Henry James never lets us forget the booming noise of the nearby airport. There’s also a cruel irony that though little benefit of the rapid economic growth in India has trickled down to Annawadi, the global financial crisis is felt just as keenly there as the price of a kilo of empty water bottles drops from 25 rupees to 10- the interconnectedness of the world economy inescapable even at the very bottom end. Magnificent full company work underpins the vibrantly realised sense of community here and makes me most excited for what Norris has in store.