REVIEW: Rudali the Mourner (Prayas)

Would you cry for a living?

Shared Tears  [by James Wenley]

Would you cry for a living?
Would you cry for a living?

Tragedy hovers over low-caste Sanichari. She has lost her husband, and as her play begins, her son lies painfully weak and in an agony of coughing. She will lose much more as the play continues: the characters that surround her – her blind mother, he daughter-in-law, and her young grandson – will too depart for various reasons. Sanichari, was born on an unlucky day, fated to devour those that surround her, and ultimately, she’s told, “will devour yourself”.

From our vantage point she devours through no fault of her own, but the card that circumstance deals. As played by Patricia Wichman, Sanichari is one of the most vivid characters you could meet in theatre this year: selfless and resilient, her daily tasks are focussed on the survival of herself and her family, with little time for anything else.

Despite continued loss, she keeps carrying on. Our hearts are lightened in the small moments of joy found by Wichman in her character’s life – like meeting a friend long lost – briefly breaking the quiet pain that otherwise weighs her. In one of those knotty contradictions that attract great writers, she has never wept for her tragedies, but finds a new spark of life in a late-in-life occupation as a professional mourner – the Rudali of the title.

Rudali transports us to a rural Indian village worlds away for most New Zealanders (like A Thousand Hills currently playing at TAPAC), and is a play that enriches for both its insight into place, and for the delight in its unfolding story. In an NZ Herald interview, the directors say that there was “an element of shock” in its depiction of prostitutes, and a strong social critique is very perceivable, particularly in the plight of the poor and caste issues, and patriarchal social structures. A cast member pointed me towards the 1993 film, which took a sober view on the subject, far removed from the Bollywood norm.

Prayas adapted this English version from Mahasweta Devi’s original Bengali novel for Auckland audiences last year at TAPAC, and after partnering with The EDGE, have returned for a season at the Herald Theatre. While the new venue loses the dynamism and some of the intimacy in the traverse staging used at TAPAC, this new production has been improved with the focus on the rhythm and clarity of the storytelling. Prayas’ huge 23 slightly pan-ethnic cast have a clear range of experience levels and abilities, but come together as a whole to bring this world to life. In the tale they found light and colour – so it is life affirming rather than overwhelmingly dreary affair – with directors Amit Ohdedar and Ahilan Karunaharan taking an approach akin to that of a theatrical fable.

Still, there’s enough reality – often clouded in black humour – that peeks through. The sight of Sanichari’s son lying on the bed, devastatingly ill, is hardly remarked upon by the others: this is normal. A religious man refuses to leave until he gets his fee.  Everyone wants to take their cut.

Fascinating too is the social expectations surrounding death, mourning and the expression of grief, and the stark contrast between the rich and the poor. “Living is tough for us poor people, but dying is even worse” sums up one part of the equation. For the rich, it is about asserting prestige and power: the more Rudali they have, weeping over the body, the better they look. Crying here is a public act, a performance, a job, and beneath the higher born. A distinction is drawn between the vulnerability of private tears, and in this moment it is difficult not to share the impulse as well. Both versions in the theatrical context are performances, but the story context adds a curious effect of mimesis.

Jessika Verryt has designed an open space for the action, the characters walking on off-orange panels on the floor which are warmed or made stark depending on the tone of the moment via Rachel Marlow’s lighting design. The costuming by Padma Akula and Monica Mahendru is a superb sight. A live five strong band accompanies the play, and are used to emphasise both specific lines, and specific feelings. With the ending producing a kind of catharsis, the joy of the musicians as they play after the actors have taken their bows refills my heart.

On an opening night, a Prayas supporter in their speech commented that “this is not a play. This is a reality”. Rudali is honest, passionate, and insightful; an overwhelmingly moving experience.

Rudali – The Mourner is presented by Prayas and The EDGE and plays at The Herald Theatre until 26 October. Details see The EDGE
SEE ALSO: review by Stephen Austin

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