“If you’re a Hindu and you live on this side, you’ve got to go to that side.
If you’re a Muslim and you live on that side, you’ve got to go to this side.”
Art and life can intersect in the strangest of ways but I’m sure that no-one could have foreseen the horrific resonances that emerged between transatlantic headlines over the weekend and the world premiere in West London of an Indian-Canadian play set in 1947. Or maybe they could, maybe that’s the point, about the brutality that women experience at the hands of men – whether in word or in deed – a horrific brand of misogyny scarring our world and that sadly shows little signs of abating.
Anusree Roy’s Trident Moon opens with a different dynamic though – it’s 1947 and the Partition of India has been hastily enforced, ripping apart society along religious lines. And in the chaos, a vengeful Alia has decided to seize her chance, taking her former employers prisoners and transporting them with her on the back of her brother-in-law’s truck on its way to West Bengal. But the journey is a hazardous one, and the six women – one of them gravely injured – find their number soon swelling to nine as they trek through dangerous territory, culminating in a harrowing stand-off.
For all the retribution the Hindu Alia wants to impose on her Muslim mistresses – and Sakuntala Ramanee maintains an extraordinary, almost disturbing, degree of intensity throughout – there’s also a pragmatism, and a tenderness there. She’s also kidnapped the mistress’s daughter, a child she practically raised whilst serving the household and when they take on the heavily pregnant Heera and the too-good-to-be-true Sumaiya (a deliciously enticing Natasha Ali), her practical instincts kick in – there’s no sense in expending too much energy on battles within the truck , when a far greater enemy lies without.
Roy’s writing is uncompromising in its detail throughout the play, describing the various ways in which women and children too easily bore the brunt of rising violence during Partition. the all-important notion of honour used as a weapon against them, not least in the branding of their skin after rape, so that they’d be rejected by either and both religions. And Anna Pool’s direction equally pulls no punches, filling the air with the ominous growl of Fred Riding’s set design and largely keeping the production from ever becoming too static, even as it hardly ever moves out of the frame of Anna Driftmier’s set.
And I really do mean uncompromising on behalf of both the writing and direction, as towards the end comes a scene which is quite possibly one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to keep myself watching on a theatre stage. It’s the kind of sequence which is scorched on the memory, perhaps appropriately so given the level of brutality it suggests and how it might affect real-life victims, and consequently it is just devastating. It’s almost too much for the remainder of the play to bear, it crumples rather than finishes, poignantly reminding us that there’s no neatness, no easy resolution for such issues in drama or in life, something you suspect Donald Trump will never understand.
An undoubtedly challenging play to watch, yet the more I think about it – and I have not been able to stop thinking about it and the near-impossibility of forming an appropriate response – an essential one too.