Molière’s play is transported from seventeenth century Paris to the town of Nagpur in modern day India. The similarities of the two places, though separated by two distant epochs, are evident. Paris in Molière’s day was a city at the zenith of fashion. It was a city of unparalleled, beautiful architecture that focused itself on the titillating gossip and political intrigue of the time. India today is one of the planet’s fastest growing economies. Unlike so much of the rest of the world its trajectory is on the up, fuelled by the technological revolution and the internet and telecoms age. Across both civilisations acquisition, greed, financial speculation and judgments based on wealth are almost identical. Money, in both places, was and is the root of most of the evils of their respective societies.
Verma, also the director of the piece, has assembled a multi talented cast of actors and musicians who tell the story with enthusiasm, at a cracking pace and with the wry confidence of people who know what the effect of what they are doing has on their audiences. The ‘cautionary tale’ nature of the production produces much uncomfortable laughter of recognition of human foibles. In particular Antony Bunsee playing the role of Harjinder [transposed from Harpagon in the original] gives a master-class in how to play the central truth of a comic character whilst always acknowledging the presence and values of his audience.
The six members of the cast play ten roles between them with remarkable dexterity and a great sense of mischief. The music, in particular the singing of Sohini Alam, is itself a fusion of styles ranging from ancient folk melody to modern Bollywood-inspired songs. One jarring note is the fact that Alam sings all the songs and the characters are asked to mime. A nod to Bollywood perhaps but the transfer of the idiom to stage does it no favours.
It wouldn’t be a piece of work by Hardeep Singh Kohli without a nod to cooking and there are some wonderfully evocative and very funny lines about culinary expertise. There are also moments when the language soars into poetry and descends into farce. The play is all the better for the inclusion of both. “Young men” we learn “are like puddles but not as deep and twice as dirty.”
There are occasional difficulties in comprehension because of the amount of Hindi words that Singh Kohli has introduced in amongst the English spoken by the new Indian bourgeiosie. So much so in fact that the programme has a glossary to explain the meanings of words such as Kundalini and Tanga-Wallah. It makes the play slightly harder to understand than is good for it but gives it an exaggerated comic authenticity and after a few minutes the ear becomes attuned and, for the most part, the script is smart enough to explain in context.
This kind of work rarely makes its way beyond the M25 and other metropolitan centres. The Theatre Royal must be commended for bringing it to the region.