Toronto Star, May 31st 1997
Comical sparks fly madly when East meets West
East meets West to create a combustible collision of high comedy and outrageous incident in Oh Sweet Sita, a production by England's Tara Arts that has found its way to the Theatre Centre on Queen St. W. Non-Asian audiences might not know that Liverpool writer/director Ravi Kapoor has adapted his play from the classic Indian text The Ramayana, which tells the story of a young woman who expires after being unjustly accused of infidelity.
They cannot help but notice, however, Kapoor's obvious love of such Western theatrical touchstones as the broad, gestural antics of commedia dell'arte and the scribblings of the Bard himself. More than anything, the comedy is indebted to the work of another contemporary English playwright, Steven Berkoff, whose Greek, which transposed Sophocles to contemporary working-class London, offered a similar stylistic fusion.
The setting is a small town in northern England. A family of East Indian immigrants has gathered to celebrate the 60th birthday of its patriarch, Dad (Vincent Ebrahim), a successful businessman.
The doting celebrants include heir apparent, Mitch (Kapoor), his wife, Sita (Parminder K. Nagra) and Dad's second wife, Kaiky (Josephine Welcome). The fifth member of the group, Kaiky's son by another marriage, is inanimately played by a wired-together dummy in a wheel chair.
Dad, like King Lear, is pondering early retirement. Or, as he puts it, "There are silver hairs around my willie, and things in my soul I need time to stroke and massage. The poem of my life I need to pull into shape. Come what come, I've Kleenex enough to hold all the tears."
Clearly, this is not the idiom of conventional domestic drama. But it suits the epic pretensions of the story. Kaiky, jealous of Sita and concerned about her own son's unlikely advancement, engineers the young couple's banishment to London. There, Mitch and Sita are seduced, respectively, by a landlady and her brother. Both resist Sita much more nobly than Mitch. And yet she is unable to shake the possibility that her innocence has been smudged. In contrast, it hardly seems to matter that Mitch has actually murdered the brother.
It's hard to know what exactly to make of this, beyond the obviousness of the double standard.
There is also a suggestion - because the landlady and brother are doubled by Welcome and Ebrahim - that the attempted seductions reflect the sexual dynamic at home. Dad, at least, clearly has more than fatherly feelings for Sita.
In any case, the production is not inclined to dwell on these possibilities. Furiously paced at times, it includes a sequence in which Mitch and Sita actually run from the north of England to London, giving cursory notice to the sites along the way.
The well-versed actors have an unshakable grasp on both Kapoor's florid prose and the show's physical, archly comic manner of presentation. The joke is taken too far at points, but this is a production that never expresses the slightest interest in exercising restraint.
Running to June 11th at The Theatre Centre, 1032 Queen Street,W
By Vit Wagner
PNO Note: This is the first performance in which Gurinder Chadha saw Parminder act.
The story centres around Gopal, a young medical student in India, who returns from Calcutta to visit the Bengal village of his birth. The homecoming is strained – Gopal has grown apart from his family and old friends and aquired an air of superiority due to his success in the big city. Whilst there he has fallen for Mukti, his professor's daughter and as a result attempts to avoid a meeting Anju, his childhood sweetheart and fiancée (played by Parminder). Anju has in the meatime attracted the attentions of Gopal’s long time friend, Biju, a schoolteacher in the village…
The Independent. London (UK): 4 June 1997
As you enter the theatre for Skeleton, Tanika Gupta's first produced stage play, a craftsman high up on Keith Khan's beautiful water-girded, ochre and red veranda set, is seen intently fashioning a statue of Durga, the 10-armed goddess who, in Hindu mythology, came down to earth to rid the world of evil. Scarred survivors of Terrence McNally's A Perfect Ganesh, which was presided over by Durga's elephant-headed son, may feel that they can wait indefinitely before rushing to see another play with an Indian deity. But where McNally's touristic confection was EM Forster re-written for the Broadway blue-rinse crowd, Gupta's drama, which was inspired by a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, has a captivating cultural purity.
Having a skeleton in the cupboard is a strangely literal business in this piece. It focuses on Gopal(Ronny Jhutti), a young medical student who returns from Calcutta for a vacation to his Bengalvillage. The homecoming is strained - partly because Gopal is now full of the superiorities of city life and partly because he has fallen for Mukti, his professor's daughter, and so keeps postponing an encounter with Anju (Parminder Nagra), his childhood sweetheart and fiancee, who is loved in hapless silence by his less successful best friend, the village schoolteacher, Biju (Ameet Channa).
To aid his studies, Gopal's proud father (Renu Setna) has bought him a skeleton which comes in its own lined casket. This pile of bones proves to be a major liability, however, for when Gopal caresses them in an ache of longing for Mukti, they turn back - with a spooky, eye-rubbing suddenness in Jonathan Lloyd's beguiling production - into the ravishingly beautiful woman, Nayani, who has been dead these 20 years. Played with a lovely impish narcissism and teasing seductiveness by Mina Anwar, this bizarre revenant proceeds to drive Gopal into a mad obsession with her as she treats him to tantalising, wittily staged re-enactments of her earthly career.
Humorous but heartfelt, the play is a fable-like demonstration of the dangers of self-absorption, both in Nayani's story and in Gopal's fixated response to it. She, it emerges, is a woman warped by vanity and by being confined from the world by her possessive worshippers. Rather than lose her loveliness in pregnancies, she preferred to poison two husbands and then take her own life so that her corpse could be preserved as an icon of beauty at its peak. If the skeleton is testimony to the futility of that ambition, Nayani's plot, now in this new posthumous lease of life, is to tempt Gopal to join her in eternity through a similarly suicidal and backfiring act of hubris.
The doubling of actors in the inner and outer dramas leads one to expect more intriguing, compensatory parallels between the lives of Gopal and Nayani than actually emerge and there are irritating loose ends and under- developed details. But this is a touchingly comic and humane drama, particularly in the contrasting realism of the honourable, gasprone best friend and jilted fiancee who are liberated by Gopal's anti-social obsession into an at first awkward, then joyous awareness that they are made for one another and that settling for what you can have is not necessarily a case of settling for less. Gopal, too, learns realism and, with the background of a ceremony in honour of the evil-ridding Goddess Durga at the close, there's a weird sense that Nayani may herself have been a supernatural blessing in disguise.
By Paul Taylor
The Guardian. Manchester: 4 June 1997
A hero torn between the claims of a ghostly visitor and living reality: it's a standard dramatic situation from Hamlet to Blithe Spirit. It is not, however, quite enough to sustain Tanika Gupta's Skeleton, the fourth in a season of plays presented by Soho Theatre Company in their new premises.
If the play has more folkoristic charm than dramatic bite, it is for an obvious reason: it is inspired by a short story by the Bengali poet, Tagore. It concerns Gopal, a young medical student who returns from Calcutta to his village only to find his father has thoughtfully given him a skeleton. But when ‘dem dry bones’ turn into an exotic, captivating beauty called Nayani, Gopal finds himself increasingly abandoning the quick for the sake of the seductive dead.
A slender fable is filled out with extended flashbacks recreating Nayani's peculiarpast, in particular, the unfortunate habit of her ex-husbands dying in her arms. But it feels like an essentially literary idea transferred uneasily to the stage, we need to know more about the budding doctor's dilemma, about the nature of Bengali life, about the influence of the gods on human affairs for the play to acquire real dramatic substance. Ronny Jhutti is a suitably anguished Gopal and Mina Anwar a properly narcissistic ghost but Parminder Nagra as the village girl he rejects has such stunning bright-eyed vivacity you begin to think the hero needs his eyes as well as his head examining.
There are touches of local colour, thinly realised in Jonathan Lloyd's production, and an air ofwistfulcharm but it stillfeels like a short-story teased out too far.
By Michael Billington
The Times (London ), 4 June 1997
Bored to the Bones (Sub-standard fare from the sub-continent)
This odd and unsatisfying play turns out to be based upon a story by Rabindranath Tagore, and the merits of the original are difficult to discern in Tanika Gupta's version of it. Jonathan Lloyd's production - not his best work - will be the last full-size event here before the builders move in. The plans are exciting, and in its various homes these past 25 years the Soho Theatre Company has mounted plays of breathtaking imagination, but this is not one of those, even if a skeleton does come to life on stage and a ten-armed goddess hovers above the rooftops.
The elements are these: young Gopal (Ronny Jhutti) returns to his widowed father at the close of his first year of medical studies in Calcutta. Once upon a time he had thoughts of marrying sweet little Anju (Parminder Nagra) but now he has fallen for one of his professor's daughters. So Question One is: what will happen to Anju?
Question Two is: what's that skeleton all about? Doting father (Renu Setna) has bought it to help his son's studies, but every night the bones re-acquire the flesh of their amorous former owner, Nayani (Mina Anwar), who teases Gopal most dreadfully with her winsome ways, and clearly wants to lure the foolish lad to his death.
On the mundane level we are offered a simple tale of love misprized (although Anju has been waiting for Gopal'srejection so that she can marry someone else, so that's all right, then). On the supramundane level the skeleton-ghost-demon's story of killing herself (and a sequence of husbands) because she does not want to lose her beauty bears no relation to the other parts of the play.
So, while such elements as Nagra's perky spirit and Setna's nervous giggles give some pleasure, the play is pretty much of a mess.
By Jeremy Kingston