Taking a cue from Lope de Vega’s play Fuenteovejuna, The Village is a story of courage, love, politics and justice, and their respective nuances. From the Spanish Golden Age to contemporary India, this new adaptation by April De Angelis speaks with a clear voice. It is certainly a play that is still relevant and worth staging today, with only a few questionable choices by Director (and Theatre Royal Stratford East Director) Nadia Fall.
If you come having read the blurb on the website, you will expect the story of 16-year-old Jyoti (Anya Chalotra) living in a rural village in northern India. The tranquillity of the community is menaced by the arrival of the Inspector (Art Malik), who “commits unspeakable acts against the village and young Jyoti…pushing everyone to breaking point.” This is a rather bold understatement; the reaction of Jyoti and the whole village is extreme, unexpected, disquieting even. Running the risk of spoiling the play, there’s brute force, torture and some bloodcurdling screams. Some scenes feel like exact calques of Euripides’ Bacchae, where, much like here, the violence of women reaches unthinkable peaks. In all this, the expedient of red dust, thrown in the air as if in a perverted Holi ritual, is just magnificent.
Despite the bags of narrative potential, the way the show is delivered is not entirely up to scratch. The rhyming script is mostly tolerable, verging only occasionally on the repetitive and cheesy. The thick northern accent of the entire cast is a bit distracting (and not entirely motivated). The show has a rather slow, almost sluggish start. The first ten minutes could almost be cut out altogether, or at least sped up. But then again, halfway through the first act, the play gains sudden momentum, creating a spiral of events in rapid succession. All of a sudden, we are hooked. Interesting choice to end the first act with loud cries, which makes the cut feel quite abrupt, but hits hard nonetheless.
After the interval, things really get going, building up tension right through to the end. There are a couple of moments of misplaced humour, but another couple of jokes delivered exactly at the right time. Overall there’s lots of crescendo, some con brio, some andante, and very little moderato – but perhaps this mix is what the play needs. As it unfolds, The Village takes unexpected turns, with an unpredictable pace.
Acting-wise, Chalotra in the lead role is pretty marvellous. She can be funny, serious, distressing, and charismatic. Noteworthy is also Malik as the Inspector. On the press night, during the curtain call, the audience had a moment of hesitation before clapping profusely when he came onto the stage – his performance of the inspector’s repulsive behaviour is all too convincing.
What leaves me only partially convinced is the (perhaps too?) easy way out. To the unrestrained violence of the authority, the village responds with as much unrestrained violence – which, at the end, is endorsed and made acceptable. While you cannot act lawfully if the law itself is corrupt, does this legitimise a violent retaliation altogether? Is force justified when turned against people who use it against us? But then, aren’t we going back to “give an eye for an eye”? I wonder whether, four centuries after the first staging of the original, the play could have come up with a fresher take on this dilemma, or with new ways to get us to think about it.
The Village is playing at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 6 October 2018. For further information and tickets, please click here.