REVIEW: Tea (Auckland Arts Festival)

Review by Nathan Joe

[When the Tea stops Pouring]

I’ve followed the work of Ahi Karunaharan closely since The Mourning After, watching him grow and flex his muscles both as a writer and director time and time again. There is an ethos and authenticity to his works; at their finest, they’ve always struck me as being able to open up audiences worldviews without restoring to cheap tokenism or appropriation. More recently, Karunaharan’s developed a keen handle for ensemble work in ATC’s Shoulda, Woulda, Couda and Prayas’ A Fine Balance and Swabhoomi.

Here, with Tea, Karunaharan delivers an intimate epic that brings all the staple elements of his work together. It opens up our minds to the world beyond our immediate eyes, taking us into the crevices of Sri Lankan history. Reminiscent of Arthur Meek’s Sheep, it uses a simple subject to traverse time and space, while exploring cultural identity. Karunaharan goes the step further in complicating his narrative by making it a family saga too, weaving in a puzzle-like structure that feels influenced by the likes of Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling.

The stories within this epic give a broad sweep of a nation in crisis. This is a world recovering from change. The world, as we know, is constantly changing, so it’s immediately resonant, but Karunaharan loads it with a specificity and knowledge of the period and culture so that we are confronted with a remarkably clear period piece (or pieces) as well as social commentary. The backdrop of colonialism and civil war is impeccably tackled, not as a dialectic, but as a fact.

The large ensemble of 10 actors charm and impress in their various roles, often doubling to great effect. Highlights include: Mayen Mehta as the adorable Haran wooing Saraid Cameron’s Shankari in a wordless sequence; Kalyani Nagarajan as Theepa, a proto-feminist icon, who disrupts the expected order of things; Mustaq Missouri as the older Haran guiding his daughter through familial remains. It’s a story with something for everyone – romance, independence, discovering roots, class warfare, history and more. While not all of the stories have the same depth and nuance, the best ask us to imaginatively expand them into their own full-fledged stories. We are left thirsty for more.

In fact, at 100-minutes without intermission, the play runs like a condensed two-act play, and almost begs for expansion. While the broad cast of characters, combined with the actors’ doubling and nonlinear structure, can cross the line from ambiguous to confusing at times, there’s an implicit trust the text and staging has for the audience. Given more time to sit with certain characters and stories, these blurred lines would find greater clarity.

In a bold moment of writing, the play thrusts us into the unknown future. It’s a jarring sequence that fascinates but doesn’t cohere with the rest of the play. The larger themes it speaks to also feel unearned. But, even at its most incongruous, the play never feels lazy.

As it is, the play weaves together tales of oppression, in its different shapes and forms, and reveals them to be a larger tale of resistance. More than just a love letter to his Sri Lanka, this is a cry for change, and a reminder that the efforts we often fight for don’t always reap immediate rewards. Nevertheless, the seeds of change demand to be planted.

I can think of few directors who can handle the delicacy and focus of working with ensembles than Karunaharan, bringing world-class staging to the Q Loft. Tableus and transitions are utterly seamless and flow like overlapping rivers. The visual elements are not overused either; this is firstly a strong text rather than devised smorgasboard of visual distractions, but when they appear they’re like great bursts of theatrical magic. Tiffany Singh’s set is a gritty yet unobtrusive slate for the cast to paint their bodies onto. The dirt seeps onto stage without overwhelming it, suggesting the marks of history that can’t be wiped clean, and perhaps shouldn’t be.

It’s daring to write such a big play, especially in a theatre ecology that doesn’t always reward such risks. Here, the investment has paid off and we’re left with a game-changer for bigger and braver plays. Ambitious with a capital A.

Tea is presented by The Oryza Foundation for Asian Performing Arts in association with Agaram Productions and plays at Q Loft until 18 March as part of the Auckland Arts Festival. 

1 Comment on REVIEW: Tea (Auckland Arts Festival)

  1. I thought Tea was fabulous; always good to look at, with moments of theatrical spectacular, and impressive consistency of character across time and actors. I agree the future sequence seemed a bit ungrounded and the contemporary characters also felt a bit underdeveloped, but the historical ones were all excellent.

    I do wish they’d served tea to the audience beforehand, though – I came out craving a cup of even the most basic gumboot variety.

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