Based on Katherine Boo’s non-fiction book of the same title, David Hare’s new play for the National Theatre feels both epic yet intimate, a play on a large scale that studies small human pettiness that can dominate – and decimate – our lives.
Behind The Beautiful Forevers is set in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi that exists, perilously and illegally, on land owned by the airport. Boo’s book and Hare’s play record the daily life of the residents on this marshy makeshift town that the city’s poor have made home. Day-to-day life is a struggle, many live hand-to-mouth from money made by rifling through the mountains of litter from the airport, reclaiming treasured plastics and metals for recycling. These ‘pickers’, as they are known, sell on their finds to a ‘sorter’ who in turn profits from selling on this trash.
The struggle to survive in this vast shanty town doesn’t overwhelm life’s petty dramas. Amongst the residents of Annawadi are the Husains, a Muslim family marooned between Hindus and Christians, their presence tolerated until they start flaunting their comparative wealth. The family can afford a ‘new’ kitchen thanks to Abdul (Shane Zaza), the eldest son and a star sorter, an expert at extracting the jewels from the rubbish piles in the bags the pickers bring him. He’s a peaceful, quiet boy, constantly despairing at his swearing, gobby mother Zehrunisa (an engaging Meera Syal). She is constantly squabbling with their neighbour Fatima Shaikh (Thusitha Jayasundera), an aggrieved and disagreeable cripple with a sideline in selling in her body. Their rows escalates when the Husains begin building work on their hut and soon pieces of rubble in Fatima’s rice kicks off a series of devastating events.
The production is a fantastic ensemble piece that pits strong characters against each other without tipping over into hysteria. Rufus Norris’s smooth direction ensures the production is even more moving in its evenhandedness, although he doesn’t shield away from the harsher realities; it’s barbaric at times and Shakespearean in its tragedies (and eye injuries). Behind The Beautiful Forevers shines a light on human nature and shows that we’re not always at our best when we’re at our lowest ebb despite what art can claim. It shows that when the world is against you, we often lash out at our neighbours (both physical and metaphorical). As a judge passing a verdict on the Husain’s points out, the poor are squabbling amongst themselves when they should be fighting the authorities.
The cast are all outstanding in what is very much an ensemble piece. As standouts, Thusitha Jayasundera is brilliant as Fatima, thoroughly convincing as a sly, nasty woman while not losing sight of her vulnerability. Meera Syal also elicits our sympathies as the cocky Zehrunisa who is cruelly cut down to size by her neighbours.
While the production deals with heavy themes, there is no agenda to Norris’ production; this is a touching, powerful drama that tells a story both big and small.
by Suzanne Elliott