Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s presentation of the British National Theatre’s NT Live series is one of Portland’s hidden theatrical treasures. Several times each year, dozens of theater fans flock to a well hidden auditorium in downtown Portland’s World Trade Center to see high definition, big screen productions from Britain’s National Theatre in London. The series offers Oregonians an opportunity to experience — virtually, at least — a world class level of production that no Oregon theater, not even that one in Ashland, could afford to stage. Those lofty production values are the main reason to see the current NT Live production, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which runs twice more, this Saturday afternoon and evening, April 4.
I haven’t yet read the best-selling 2012 volume of the same title by MacArthur “genius” grantee Katherine Boo, a long time favorite journalist of mine from her days at the Washington Post and Washington Monthly, but it earned critical acclaim, including a National Book Award. Now a Pulitzer Prize winning staff writer at The New Yorker, Boo is featured in a short video that preceded the broadcast of playwright David Hare’s adaptation of her book, directed by Rufus Norris, and I just wish that the play itself had packed emotional poignance apparent in her brief interview and the video’s real-life Mumbai scenes. Because for all its truly spectacular acting and staging, Hare’s play ultimately suffers the fate of so many that try to put complex literature on stage — and especially those that try to dramatize a multi-faceted historical tapestry.
Hare’s play tries to do for 21st century Mumbai’s slumdog-eat-slumdog Annawadi shantytown (where Boo lived for several years while chronicling the stories of several of its residents) what Elmer Rice, Langston Hughes and Kurt Weill’s 1946 opera Street Scene did for mid century urban America: use a single location as almost a character that can help the audience understand and feel the lives of the people who live there. But the events in Boo’s book actually happened, which challenges the playwright to do the hard work of choosing and weaving fact sequences into an emotionally moving drama, rather than making them up. Turning history into compelling stage drama is certainly possible — see Northwest Classical Theatre’s Mary Stuart for the most recent local example — but it requires making hard choices about what to leave out, in order to avoid creating interference with the narrative and to provide room for character development.
We meet some of the main characters in promising opening sequences in which they occasionally break the fourth wall and tell snippets of their stories to the audience directly — a technique that Hare abandons as he develops and hastily wraps up too many complex plot lines. Most of those characters are pickers and sorters, going through trash discarded by the patrons of the next-door airport and surrounding luxury hotels flourishing amid India’s 21st century economic boom, while leaving millions trapped in the squalid zero-sum world Boo and Hare portray, which rewards those who take advantage of others. “Corruption gets a bad press,” one character declares in a typical bit of pat Hare-say, “but for us, it’s our only chance. If you don’t think it’s wrong, then it isn’t.” Commendably, the play frequently reminds us that picking through shoelaces, water bottles and condiment packets for a few scraps to sell is a continuous part of their desperate lives.
Most desperate is the charming young Sunil, who scavenges (not always legally) recyclable materials that his friend, the idealistic Abdul Husain, then sorts. Pushed relentlessly by their ambitious matriarch, Zehrunisa, Abdul’s Muslim family uses his fleet sorting skills to rise slightly above their neighbors, many of whom are Hindus or Christians — a source of resentment and tension that will explode when they get into a dispute with one of their fellow Muslim neighbors, Fatima. That’s the first-act inciting incident for her incendiary revenge, which in turn sends the Husain family into a ruinous, second-act journey through India’s notoriously corrupt justice system, and harsh encounters with the officials who are supposed to protect but more often prey on them.
That’s already plenty of material to develop, but wait — the parade continues: another matriarch, Asha, a politically ambitious fixer who ruthlessly uses her wiles, flexible ethics and sexual skills to buy her family a working class lifestyle; Asha’s daughter Manju, the beneficiary of that ill-gotten largesse, who comes to loathe the family’s means of acquiring it; her friend, trapped in an arranged marriage and forbidden education, whom she’s trying to enlighten during long, furtive literary latrine breaks. For girls in her position, those scenes suggest, edification is as shameful as excretion. Dickensian young scrap collectors risk their lives to obtain better refuse, a teacher tries (sort of) to help wayward boys, judges accommodate a unjust legal system….
In trying to evoke the sheer epic scope and scale of Boo’s book, the play marches these characters through an obstacle course of India’s contemporary social ills: police brutality, legal system venality, medical system incompetence, sectarian tension. Most of the second act is devoted to tying up multiple plot threads rather than telling us anything more than what we already learned in the first.
No doubt resulting from the playwright’s attempt to be faithful to his source material, the profusion of plot lines does evoke the slum’s rich interplay of human stories. With so much going on, it’s a wonder that Hare and Norris manage it all as well as they have. But like so many other recent plays that start with a checklist of events or themes and then contrive a story to tie them together, rather than the opposite, BBF’s emphasis on plot eclipses the characters the book and play are supposed to be about. In all, with more than 30 characters rattling through Annawadi during its three-hour running time, there’s little time to develop any of them, and they become mere stereotypes: the cynical lawyer, the corrupt cop, the hard-bitten manipulator, the noble young idealist.
The three powerful females at the center of most of the action (one of whom departs long before the end) come off as two dimensional — different versions of toughness, but with little reason for us to care about them. They’re just hard manipulators, mostly bereft of vulnerability or much motivation beyond greed. Similarly, their dialogue all sounds similar, with plot-advancing lines alternating with snappy (sometimes wryly funny) one-liners that tell us little about the women speaking them.
The younger characters come off as more sympathetic, particularly Abdul and Manju. But we’re never shown why — except for their youth — they’ve been able to maintain their idealism and honesty when practically everyone else around them succumbs to the merciless law of the asphalt jungle. Their lack of stage time is compounded by the odd pacing and sometimes clumsy interweaving of the admittedly multifarious plot strands; the closest thing to a protagonist is Abdul, yet we see little of him until so late in the action that his story almost feels like an intrusion.
The result is a curious distance between audience and subject, maybe accentuated by the fact that we’re watching a film, after all, but probably more to do with superficial dialogue and sketchy, sometimes sentimentalized characterizations. Even when it’s possible to understand these characters, it’s harder to feel much about them, even when suicide, murder, and injustice beleaguer them. Ultimately, their portrait is as two dimensional as the posters promising “a beautiful forever” that provide an ironic backdrop to Mumbai’s ugly here and now.
The problem is certainly not the acting, which is as strong as anything I’ve seen at NT Live and maybe anywhere else in Portland. Shane Zaza (Abdul), Meera Syal (Zehrunisa), Hiran Abeysekera (Sunil), Thusitha Jayasundera (Fatima) and Stephanie Street (Asha) all do as much as they can with the underwritten roles, and are worth watching for their sheer virtuosity and commitment.
The rest of the production is equally powerful — a hallmark of the National Theatre and NT Live. Set designer Katrina Lindsay uses cardboard boxes, highway directional signs, plastic bottles, and various industrial looks to conjure up a colorfully chaotic world without resorting to literalism. It can seem a little antiseptic at times, but the intentional sketched-in feel reminds us throughout that, like the temporary dwellings and the rest of their evanescent lives, the people on stage could be swept away at any moment.
When the scene shifts to dreary institutional settings like a claustrophobic police station and a filthy hospital, Paule Constable’s lighting switches to chilly, dim fluorescent bulbs. Bollywood style music provides occasional injections of street energy. A brilliant video and sound (designed by Jack Henry James and Paul Arditti) evocation of airplanes ominously and ear-piercingly swooping in over the characters’ heads periodically reminds us of their inconsequentiality to the toffs who literally soar above their meager station, as well as the shiny technology whose scraps they feed off, and which will eventually displace them as the economy and the adjacent airport expand.
There’s no small irony in the enormous expense of the production needed to depict extreme grinding poverty, but it’s one of the main reasons to see this overstuffed, well intentioned would-be epic, and it may be enough for many theatergoers. In the end, though, I felt like a tourist who came away with vivid snapshots of a strange and troubling place, but knowing little about the people who lived there.
NT Live’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers plays at 2 pm and 7 pm Saturday, April 4 at Portland’s World Trade Center Theater, 121 SW Salmon Street.
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