Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • MANDRAGORA KING OF INDIA • Tara Arts @ Croydon Clocktower [tour] • 2004

Fort St George on the Coromandel Coast. Belonging to the East India Company of England

An 18th century portrait depicting Fort St. George, the first major English settlement in India and the foundation stone of Chennai [Madras]

Mandragora is King of India, reigning in Madras, the land of the Koh-i-Noor, when a party of ‘chalky-whites’ arrive: Lord Hastings, Lady Catherine who is to be his bride and another nobleman called Thatch. Cultures clash and the ‘chalky-whites’ make off with the diamond. A simple metaphor for European exploitation, we are clearly not intended to take it as a documentary.

Nirjay Mahindru’s play is set in a fantasy land. There was a Hastings, Warren Hastings, the first English Governor-General in 1774 (impeached for corruption in the next decade) but their costumes place these visitors nearly two centuries earlier. The Koh-i-Noor (from the Persian for ‘mountain of light’), the dazzling jewel set in the Queen’s state crown in 1937, has been known since the fourteenth-century and belonged to the seventeenth-century Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb. The British did not get hold of it until 1849.

The play is performed in front of Claudia Mayer’s simple set of a Victorian proscenium, with a tiger’s head where the royal arms might be and whose stylized marbled panels hint at Indian temple sculpture. We are in the world of pantomime, melodrama and toy-theatre. Its characters speak dialogue scattered with doggerel verse, Shakespearean phraseology, the names of Indian dishes, Churchillian rhetoric and contemporary references to asylum seekers, exclusion zones, performance-related-pay and other modernisms. Throw in some religious parallels, a sub-plot with a poet and his daughter rebelling against tradition, a song or two and it is a very mad-cap mixture, well set up by a prologue complete with conjuring tricks which calls on our imagination and reminds us that ’Some lies are true.’

Director Jatinder Verma has kept everything simple and fast-moving. Scenes end, lights fade and characters walk off to reappear as someone else. Actors bring on garments to help others effect quick changes to another persona. Ingenious and colourful costumes and the sheer energy of the performers make for lively engagement but the performance I saw at Croydon Clocktower was often difficult to follow. The fault may largely lie in the great height of this performance space and its challenging acoustic. It needed much clear speaking to make everything comprehensible, especially as a slight change in position seemed to have a major effect on the sound.

When companies are playing only one or two performances at each date it can be difficult to adjust to a venue and what works in an empty house may be quite different with an audience, but I went on the third night: is there no feedback from anyone front of house? Shaun Chawdhary’s Hastings (doubling Indian noble Jasper) I could hear and follow at all times, but I lost much of Avin Shah’s Mandragora (though his London-voiced Spade was clearer). Emma Bown gave us a lively European version of traditional Indian dance, and was often crystal clear but occasionally too shrill or just too quiet. Anushka Dahssi’s fiesty Sunita was frequently difficult to comprehend, although I lost much less of Arif Javid’s Bindio and Tim Bruce’s Thatch. Please, all of you, play safe and go for clarity, clarity at all times. Other venues may not present such a problem, but did I miss something that would have given a little more meaning to the play and make it seem more focussed? Or is it just a romp?

Tara Arts‘ current ‘Borders of Love’ project, of which this show forms part, ‘seeks to explore and dramatise pre-colonial Anglo-Indian relations’ (their phrase not mine) but enjoyable though it may be, Mandragora does not do much exploration and to that extent is disappointing. There are hints of dark issues here: the play opens with Mandragora’s Queen dying in childbirth and a stillborn son, and the King bewailing his “rotten loins” and “poisoned seed”. The Englishwoman calls Mandragora a monster, stinking and ignoble (though we see a rather engaging tyrant), but she has set about learning local language and custom while her thieving betrothed preaches economic reform. But none of these strands are developed. What we get is a colourful romp that laughs at itself and its self-conscious jokes but it is the pace of the production and its stylish mounting that ensure we find it fun.

Howard Loxton © 2004

Originally published on R&V 08-10-04

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