Edinburgh Fringe 2013
A highly skilled performance of one man’s experience of prejudice from within a Hindu state as a Muslim that tantalises and draws you into an ending that seems as ambivalent as the history on which it strongly draws.
Ali J is in prison for a crime that he claims he did not commit. Eventually he is released but not until he tells us of his mixed marriage with a Hindu wife and how the prejudice that he meets in India as a Muslim leads him to conclude that life in a Muslim neighbourhood might be preferable. As an actor, Ali J has clearly given great thought to how the story should be told. He upsets his parents who paid for him to go to college in London so that he could join the family milk sweet business by leaving college to become an actor. He ends up back in India in a call centre when his new found career does not take off. He participates in the Muslim riots and is then arrested as a suspected criminal; in India you are presumed guilty until you can prove your innocence or so he claims. His eventual hope of release comes with some form of confession that leaves you unsure of just where the guilt lies.
This was evocative and truly intriguing. I was hooked from the first words until we heard the ending. This is an allegorical tale that reflects the real partition in India which led to the creation of Pakistan. Whilst the leaders of these two nations at one time believed in one state for the two religions difference eventually forced them apart. Ali J has that debate internally as he is a Muslim married to a Hindu wife. It is a vehicle that does not entirely lead one to think of the Pakistan/India divide but it does enough to explore the issues surrounding religious prejudice in the world.
In a small room with a very simple set our performer takes us into his prison whilst allowing us to imagine what the story told must mean to him; the meeting with his wife; being beaten by his rival; seeing them together at a bus stop; and how he follows his heart in a career that ends up with disappointment. This has traditional dance as well as clipped and measured movement keeping the narrative flowing with ease. A touch of Bollywood and bhangra along with traditional dance in the first meeting with his wife provides some nice texture.
The set is a small rectangular space with poles upright around to mark out the prison cell. From most of these poles hang rope which is then, during the show, pulled to attach one pole to another – like the web of a disabled spider. Although simple it remains effective in giving us a sense of the claustrophobia from which this man suffers whilst in prison as well as the suffocating presence of prejudice outside of a prison wall but inside his head.
There were very high production values at work here with the performances and integration of set and music at the highest level. The overtly political messages of trying to co exist with peaceful intentions are touched upon with the tale in a very subtle yet effective manner. Even if the allegory is missed the performance holds enough of your attention to mean that the story – tragic in its unfolding – keeps you attentive throughout.
As a piece of one man storytelling this is a quality production. I had some reservations at the opening where I was unsure of where we were going. The programme notes are very clear on the political intentions of the piece but the story was so personal that there were some steps that held me open to the idea that this was disconnected in some way; the purpose was not wholly apparent. It was a piece that grew more on me after I left but it was truly a remarkable performance.
That performance drew me in, held me and kept me intrigued in how it ended. The ending had me slightly confused as it seemed to be suggesting that Ali J was less than truthful. Perhaps this was the point and I need to draw upon my own resources to consider the conflict but having been guided to consider it, more guidance over how it ought to be seen was needed. I was therefore unable to argue with the performer but the Director and I could do with having a discussion…