Thursday 22 December 2016

The Print Room casting and #ReadaPlayaWeek: Monsoon

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 52: Maya Chowdhry’s Monsoon (c.1991)

Recently, London’s The Print Room theatre has caused controversy by its all white casting of Howard Barker’s In the Depths of Dead Love which features four Asian (although this is disputed) characters. I don’t want to wade too much into the debate as there are many much more erudite and well-informed thought pieces about it. Besides, I don’t know the play nor much about The Print Room’s other work. What I’m interested in is their responses to the accusations of Yellowface. Indeed, both their initial and recent press statements make the play sound as impenetrable as the Barker plays I do know. Apparently, the play ‘references a setting in Ancient China and the characters' names are Chinese’ but the characters are not Chinese and it’s not a “Chinese” play. ‘It is in fact’, they say, ‘a very “English” play and is derived from thoroughly English mores and simply references the mythic and the ancient’. But this seems problematic as it perpetuates ideas of the ‘other’ and myth being related to the Orient.

The story may be universal, as is implied, but surely it can’t be both ‘placeless’ and have references to a Chinese setting and character names. Thinking of plays recently featured in this #ReadaPlayaWeek series, Winsome Pinnock’s A Hero’s Welcome may sketch a ‘luminous network of early love, muddled aspirations and humdrum betrayal’ (as The Listener reviewed it) but the West Indies setting is also integral to the play, however universal the play’s themes may be. More and more I’m thinking the problem may lie more with Barker’s play than the Print Room’s production itself.

Another play in the anthology ‘Six Plays by Black and Asian Women Writers’ (written about a couple of weeks ago, here) is Chowdhry’s radio play Monsoon – Barker's play also started on the radio. Starting life as a poem, the play weaves poetry, music and short snippets of scenes evoking Jalaarnava’s physical journey to India and Kashmir, and her spiritual journey as she explores a lesbian relationship. The play also cleverly explores the parallel between Jal’s PMT waiting for her period to start, and the heat of the summer before the rain pours and rejuvenates the earth. Jal’s view that the menstrual cycle allows the cycle of life to begin again suggests how sensual, natural imagery is employed in the play. Tablas hint at the monsoon and the building of relationships and a flute is used to signal her inner thoughts as she writes in her diary. Heat and dust, sweat, dried blood, pouring blood, cramps, the gentility of the Kashmir lakes and the growing passion between Jal and Nusrat help make Monsoon very visceral. In some ways (and this might be a feeble link) the opposing feelings and expression of passion in Monsoon reminded me of the raw/cooked binary in The Bacchae. Chowdhry’s play may be rooted in the world of poetry but Monsoon contains the essences of great drama.

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