Kali Theatre has flipped polygamy on its head with an insightful new production that delves into life in a fictional society where the fairer sex rule. In a world where polygamy is widely accepted and even encouraged – if you are a man – Sharmila Chauhan presents a different possibility: a futuristic rural community in India where polyandry is actively encouraged, where women own more land than men, and where it is common for females to hold prominent positions of power.
In the intimate setting of Soho Theatre’s Upstairs space, the gated and self-sufficient community of Shaktipur is brought vividly to life. The pungent aroma of cardamom and cinnamon fills the room, and brightly coloured bunting hangs overhead. It’s a simple set, but evocative of a world deep-rooted in, and loyal to, ancient Indian traditions.
Whilst for the most part the dialogue is light and witty, elements of Chauhan’s script tug at similar strings to that of the award-winning play Nirbhaya. References made to the treatment of women outside Shaktipur serve as a searing reminder of the reality of life in India today for some women.
The Husbands is honest and fresh throughout, from the genuine love and fondness that can be felt between Aya and her husbands, to the jealousy that (naturally?) arises from such an arrangement. The tensions wrought from a fear of outsiders and the threat they pose to this stable and insular society are evident, though, and in this snug space we are forced to acknowledge them.
Syreeta Kumar is strong as the firm and forthright Aya, who is busy preparing for her third wedding, this time to a wealthy landowner in Mumbai, without a whisper of dissent from the society she rules over. She faces contention though from worried husband Omar (Mark Theodore) who isn’t keen to share Aya, whilst her other husband Sem (Rhik Samadder) has accepted her decision, choosing instead to prioritise the development of their society. However it is the unannounced arrival of British lover Jerome (Phillip Edgerley) that reveals the cracks in their system as he ostensibly undermines the progressive façade of their way of life in Shaktipur.
Ultimately, whilst women have the edge on hierarchy, ownership of land, and power in this community, significant worth is still placed on their bodies – Aya’s third marriage is a means for her to expand the advanced agricultural teachings of Shaktipur, and to hopefully extend their spirit and values throughout India; it is essentially a trade of woman for land. Fundamentally this blurs Chauhan’s message somewhat, and whilst direction by Janet Steel is simple, a more nuanced second half might have made this clearer.
The Husbands is playing at Soho Theatre until 23 March. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.