Review: Santi & Naz, VAULT Festival

Heart-warming and distressing, elegant and silly, Santi & Naz is a moving story of pairs that at first glance belong to distinct, different sides of the lines drawn up by history and society but are soon shown to swirl into one another like the confluence of two rivers.

The story, written by Guleraana Mir and Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, follows two girls, Santi (Rose-Marie Christian) and Naz (Ashna Rabheru) who are Sikh and Muslim respectively. The play tells of how the two are torn apart by the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, just as they are beginning to enter the adult world. Fluctuating between childish farce and searching introspection, their friendship begins to deepen into something more sensual and profound that they cannot name but understand without needing to do so.

What sets Santi & Naz apart from other productions is the complexity of the relationship at its centre, which is joyfully portrayed with lightness, empathy and an playful sense of humour by Christian and Rabheru, whose easy awareness of each other’s presence wordlessly conveys the significance of their characters in each other’s lives. Water plays an important role throughout the play and, aided by Madelaine Moore’s thoughtful direction, the two actors’ flowing movements across the tastefully sparse stage, whether in impudent dance or fervent dreams, reflect the fluidity of the selves that Santi and Naz are exploring.

In bringing to life the intersectional lived experiences of people too often lost within the thick insistent strokes of traditional history, Santi & Naz also laughs at the self-importance of the conventionally prominent politics: literally, in one memorable scene, that sees the two protagonists take turns to parody Gandhi and his claim to speak for all Indians. By placing the action in the daydreams, quiet moments and overlooked places that provide the backdrop to their friendship, we begin to understand the extent to which decisions made off-stage, by other people, intrude on their lives and desires and how precious, fragile and vibrant these seemingly innocuous moments are.

This is a play that is intimately aware that there are stories everywhere and that the more subtle ones can resonate more strongly if we are willing to seek them out and listen to them amongst the brash cacophony of competing voices. Perhaps its central concern, that comes gradually to prominence, is the importance of challenging accepted narratives that exclude many people from consideration, as Santi and Naz are excluded from consideration of their own futures. 

Equally comfortable poking fun at the established narrative traditions – ‘he must be saying something important because he’s waving his arms around’ – and inviting us into the compelling stories of the people that exist beyond the narrow horizons of these traditions, Santi & Naz is a gently powerful play that continues to drift across the borders of our minds long after the lights go down and we are once more partitioned into performers and audience.

Santi & Naz is playing The Vaults until 2 February, as part of The Vault Festival. For more information and tickets, see the VAULT Festival website.