FringeReview UK 2022
Adapted from Kavita Puri’s Partition Voices: Untold British Stories by Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood
Directed by Abdul Shayek with Design by Rose Revitt and Lighting by Ciaran Cunnningham, Video Designer Tyler Forward, Sound Designer & Composer Elena Pena
Movement Directors Rakhee Sharma, Dialect Coach Gurkiran Kaur, Assistant Director Lata Nobes
Casting Director Anna Cooper CDG,
Rehearsal and Production Photography Manuel Harlan
At the Donmar till September 17th then at Tara Theatre London, 22 September–1 October
This is groundbreaking. To mark the 70th anniversary of Partition in 2017, Kavita Puri compiled an oral project to allow British South Asians to speak of what for three generations has hitherto often been, as this 75th anniversary adaptation proclaims, Silence.
Partition Voices: Untold British Stories, the book of that project was published in 2019, updated this year – where one story from as late as this April is featured in Silence. It’s inspired a collaborative dramatization by four diverse writers for the Donmar and Tara theatre, directed by Abdul Shayek. Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood interleave narratives that resonate from their diversity.
The crafting of verbatim accounts isn’t quite verbatim theatre. Puri herself prefaces the programme with remarks of how the central character Mina’s fictional, and to a degree Mina’s relationship with her father – played by Bhasker Patel – is too. His reluctant testimony though is the verbatim one Puri’s father supplied, and though names are changed, there’s very little kerning of facts to obstruct, confect, or elaborate. Partition Voices is an essential adjunct to absorbing what you see.
Though we’ve also absorbed Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and drama has already seen the hapless appointed judge Cyril Radcliffe, in a grandee-centred play of Howard Brenton’s 2013 Drawing the Line, this is inevitably raw, storytelling, episodic experience. There’s a thread bringing luminous yet terrible conclusion, as well as heart-warming one. What we don’t mine is the outfall of realpolitik Brenton explored from an Anglocentric sphere; or how decisions fall on communities from decisions made by Nehru, Jinna, Mountbatten and so many others.
There’s much of this in the radio documentary and volume. So at 100 minutes perhaps this adaptation might have opened out at least for another 20, even if an interval interrupted it. We do get ‘We are here because you were there’ Puri’s use in her coda of Ambalavaner Sivanandran’s famous dictum. And we get it in time, since he like many others featured died (in 2018) just as the radio programmes and book came out.
Seven stories follow Mina’s overarching personal quest – which occasionally interrupts and connects them. Six actors multi-role round Nimmi Harasgama’s journalist, grudgingly allowed by fellow staff to pursue in effect what Puri does – which might seem clunky, but not inaccurate. The dynamic of Patel’s and Harasgama’s characters drives to the heart of this work. There’s a moment when Patel’s left alone onstage as Harasgama makes tea; his taped voice rasps details.
Escape is dominant: Jay Saighal’s sole survival as his character Young Irfan makes it to Pakistan is only the most extreme. You’re sometimes confronted with a character’s older self glimmering in and out (here played by Patel). Saighal’s presence shapeshifts through a range of characters.
Renu Brindle’s Pooja, the silent traumatised final witness of three she plays – bringing a quiet intensity to each – is the most terrible. This comes before the final reveal of Patel. It’s a telling by Harasgama of literally how Partition was sliced on women’s bodies, and just a selection of what befell not only murder and rape victims like mutilation, but ostracization and ashrams for ‘polluted’ women that lasted fifty years to 1997.
As Noor, Brindle’s slowly coaxed protectively into witness by her son, Rehan Sheikh’s final role. Rehan commands several roles with memorable presence, not least Jasvir: one who with his last remaining authority as police chief, prevents bloodshed of Muslims.
There’s colonising witness too. Martin Turner quietly radiates James, the Scottish engineer born and returning to India show how inclusive Putri has been – he’s by no means the only former Raj voice in the book.
More intriguing is Sujaya Dasgupta’s telling of her shrouded naval aide-de-camp grandfather played by Saighal. Loyal to Mountbatten he demands (using caste status) the Viceroy and his wife entrance to a temple that’s purified the day after. Dasgupta and Saighal play Zara and Sami, just married in April 2022 whose Punjabi side of their family – though bisected by religion – are more harmonious than their Anglo-British and French heritage. It’s a joyous, light-filled moment, a necessary contrast.
Dasgupta features too as the young Muslim Yasmin Patel’s Mukesh falls in love with at 15, then has to leave. He returns in 1992, full of quiet heartbreak. Strikingly, it’s being from the province of Sind that hitherto people identified with, religion a distant second.
Whilst escaping as Young Irfan early in the play, Saighal draws a chalk railway across the stage floor. At the end it’s bisected at the end by Harasgama’s pouring of ashes. It’s a moment of exceptional theatre rising to the power of witness. You just come away wondering if adaptation’s been too respectful, resorting to shorthand tropes and joinings-up, bleaching out other possibilities. Nevertheless, you can’t go from these last minutes without being changed in some way.
Rose Revitt’s set features luminously-angled backdrops: in Tyler Forward’s video design they suddenly etch, evolve maps and line-drawings of villages shaded in, women carrying pots, all tenebrous in Ciaran Cunningham’s lighting. Occasionally it’s stroked by lamplight or a Mac screen’s glimmer as Mina goes about collating.
The most striking image though is created by Saighal’s drawing of that chalk railway bisected at the end by ashes. Work by sound designer and composer Elena Pena is similarly undistracting, music and a backdrop of overlaid voices: it stays, as does the final image. The strongest impression Puri gained from these testimonies is witnesses’ love of their particular land: jars of earth, keepsakes scattered throughout the UK, underscores it’s more of a scattering of earth, ashes and love than simply groundbreaking. But caveats aside, groundbreaking it is.