A Tale of Two Authors

Posted in Reviews, Theater by ameliadean on May 5, 2010

Together, they are responsible for writing some of the most popular tales to date. From The Adventures of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations to The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling, the stories of Charles Dickens and Hans Christian Anderson have captivated people across continents and generations.

And yet these two authors had more in common than literary success. They were also friends. After meeting at an elite social gathering in 1847, British Dickens and Danish Anderson struck up an affectionate correspondence. Ten years later, Dickens invited Anderson to his family’s country home for what turned out to be an extended, eventually distressing visit. Famously, after Anderson departed, Dickens wrote on the guest room mirror: “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!”

Playwright Sebastian Barry uses Anderson’s intrusion into the Dickens abode as the subject of his new play, Anderson’s English, now being performed at the Hampstead Theatre. However, in contrast to what one might expect, the relationship between the two writers does not take center stage.  Instead, Barry decides to focus on the many mini dramas unfolding before the oblivious, socially awkward, and English-challenged Anderson.  We witness the disintegration of the marriage between Dickens and his wife, Catherine, the disastrous meddling of Catherine’s well-intentioned sister, Georgie, the futile romance between Dickens’ son and the family’s feisty Irish maid, and the disapproving glare of Dickens’ daughter, Kate. Through it all, Dickens reigns supreme, cold, cruel, and intent on having his way. Anderson’s character provides the comic relief, stumbling over his words, committing social faux pas, and serving as an unsuspecting confidante.

While the actors’ performances were strong and the staging inventive, I was not moved by Barry’s play.  Admittedly, Niamh Cusack’s rendition of Dickens’ wife Catherine was outstanding. But even her lonely desperation was not able to draw me in. Instead of seriously exploring marital distress, parental control, and the self-indulgence of genius, Barry seems satisfied with an account of the way things might have been. The product is a web of possibilities rather than anything of serious substance or insight.

Behud (Beyond Belief)

Posted in Reviews, Theater by ameliadean on May 2, 2010

In November 2004, British Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was a relatively unknown dramatist with a play in its final stages of production. A month later she had become an international provocateur, attracting both praise and death treats.

The catalyst for Bhatti’s overnight celebrity was her controversial second play Behzti, translated from Punjabi as Dishonor. Crucially, Behzti contains a transgressive scene in which rape, physical abuse, and murder occur in a Gurdwara, or Sikh temple. Although Behzti was set to open at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on December 18th, mass protests eventually turned violent, and the theatre called off all scheduled performances.

From the beginning, the Behzti controversy was rooted in an age-old argument about the freedom of speech. On the one side, members of the local Sikh community asserted that the artist had no right to bring such an offensive and misrepresentative play to the public stage. On the other side, the theatre, playwright, and hundreds of arts figures defended the artist’s right to express and explore through fiction. While the debates aroused by the controversy proved interesting, many were disappointed by the final cancellation. Bhatti, for one, was devastated.

Six years later, Bhatti has returned to the events surrounding Behzti in her new satire Behud (Beyond Belief) at the Soho Theatre. Playful, surreal, and unsettling, Behud sucks us into the imagination of an artist desperate to bring her vision to life. Putting herself on stage as the protagonist playwright Tarlochan, Bhatti shows how the Behzti controversy was as comical as it was traumatic. In the end, however, the amusing absurdity of the situation can do little to alleviate the pain of Bhatti’s silencing. Abandoned by both white liberals and members of her own Sikh community, Tarlochan finds herself betrayed, alone, and unable to come to terms with reality.

While the blurring of reality and art is, in my opinion, overplayed, Bhatti’s new satire contains many valuable points of entry into constructive debate. There is the journalist, Satinder Shergill (Priyanga Burford), who claims she is willing to be used by whites to make them feel multicultural– so long as there is something in it for her. There is the levelheaded Sikh elder Mr. Sidhu (Ravin J Ganatra) who cogently argues that the sanctity of the Gurdwara­ be respected. Thankfully, Bhatti does not gesture towards any easy answers. Instead, she compels us to make our own conclusions, to think through the events, characters, and disparate lines of reasoning in more individual terms.

I have included the Soho Theatre’s trailer for Behud, as well as the Channel 4 news coverage of Behzti’s 2004 cancellation in Birmingham.