Teenager Sita is abducted from her village on the eve of her wedding. She manages to escape her captors but is lost in the wilderness and frightened. She meets a cross-dressing entertainer, Lakshman, who refuses her plea for help in returning home but instead gives her money. She embarks on the journey, but is attacked and raped. Lakshman overhears the assailant boasting about his actions and sets out to find the stricken girl.
He is successful and assists in her recovery, and agrees to escort her for the remainder of the journey. In order to ensure her safety, he dresses her in male clothes. They make the journey to her village, her as the man, him as the woman.
Backgound to the production
Murari's drama formed the basis of a movie, which on it's release in 1996 met with great acclaim, but also a measure of controversy. Having adapted the piece for the stage, the author also directed the premier performance at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre.
The lead role of an illeterate peasant girl who becomes the victim of a violent rape, offered both a great opportunity but also a daunting challange for a young actress. The author described the demands that the role placed on the actress portraying the central character, and his choice of Parminder to take it on:
"I was looking for a good, young actress to play the lead role in ‘The Square Circle’. The lead role was very demanding – she would be on stage from lights up to the final curtain. Apart from being able to emote – shyness, anger, fear, love, the whole gamut of emotions in two acts- she would also have to be very physically fit. She would have to run fast, ‘swim’ and play a very demanding rape scene too.
My producer, Vayu Naidu, had suggested one name – Parminder Nagra. ‘if you can get her, you’ll have a terrific play. She’s great’. We arranged a casting call down in London in a hall just off Tottenham Court Road. Word had got out and more faces than I’d expected turned up for the auditions. They were asked to do an improv and act out a page of the script. Some of the actresses were older than their touched-up photographs, while the younger ones didn’t quite have what I was looking for. Vayu and I began to worry that Parminder wouldn’t come, as by late afternoon we were getting a bit dispirited. I did cast two of the minor roles and a male role. And then a tiny dishevelled girl wandered in – she was in baggy jeans and a baggy coat that reached her ears. She had a pretty oval face and bright eyes peering out from the shadows of her collar. Parminder improvised and read, it came so easily to her, even casually, and then she vanished, not waiting to hear my decision.
I sent her my play and called her a couple of days later and we met at Soho House for a coffee. This time, she dressed up, only a bit, and she said she liked the play a lot and would love to do it. But…! I discovered that Parminder was making a reputation for herself in the small circle of theatre and television and she wasn’t sure she’d be available on my dates.
I pursued her and won her over. She agreed to play the lead with a tiny reluctance – the role was very demanding and she would have to perform it five days a week for two and a half weeks. We began our rehearsals in Leicester - 6 days a week from 10-5- and I discovered the delight of working with a talented actress. She had a wonderful sense of innocence (my village girl) which could switch to maturity. She could laugh and subtly turn that into tears. As a director, what I appreciated most was that she had an excellent memory – not so much for the lines but if we experimented with a scene and I changed my mind, she could immediately return to playing it the original way. Even if we experimented a dozen times, I just had to say ‘let’s try it again the way we did it day before yesterday’ and Parminder would re-create that performance exactly the way I remembered it.
Unlike my other cast members, she’d not formally trained as an actor. They’d been to Bristol, RADA and other acting schools and were very good. Parminder was totally instinctive. I left the hardest part of her role – the rape scene – for the second week. Luckily, for Parminder, her ‘rapist’ was a good friend of hers, Nitin Ganatra, a marvellous actor. The scene was very physically demanding and I had Renny Krupinski, a fight director, choreograph the rape. Parminder was physically assaulted, touched, stroked, hit by her ‘rapist’ and she played it bravely as a professional actress. In the actual performance on stage, (5 times a week) with the brooding and dramatic lighting, it was a scary scene, yet very moving. Every night the audience flinched".
Despite it's critical success, Murari was reportedly dissatisfied with aspects of the film version of his work, and sought to remedy that with the theatrical version. The ending differed significantly from the the movie, where the character of Lakshman is killed by the rapist.
A swift and shocking rape is at the heart of this play, written and directed at the Haymarket Studio by the author of the original screenplay, Timeri N Murari. Sita, a young village girl kidnapped for prostitution on her wedding eve, escapes only to be violated as she tries to journey home. She is befriended by a travelling actor dressed as a woman, who coaches her in dressing and behaving like a man to get her revenge.
Shakespearean elements of cross-dressing and the exploration of sexual identity sit easily in an Indian context where love has nothing to do with marriage and sex has little to do with love. And despite the centrality of the rape, it is a funny and tender play in parts.
Bollywood actor Rahul Bose gives a wry, beautifully arch performance as Laksmi, the would-be great artist, and Parminder Nagra movingly portrays the abject terror of a child, the growing sensuality of a woman and the absurd posturing of a man.
Sometimes, as dusty day changes to ominous night, you could be watching a timeless Indian folk tale on Kamini Gupta's spare and evocative set. But 20th century reality is ever-present in the revving of motorbikes and headlights of passing cars, and in the jeans-clad rapist (all the more chilling for the circling, silent hand-springs he performs before the assault).
The supporting cast of Vinny Dhillon, Nitin Ganatra and Harvey Virdi create a colourful microcosm of Indian society, further authenticated by Paul Jacob's original score.
By Pat Ashworth
Timeri Murari’s tale of gender roles and preconceptions which won acclaim on the big screen is now making its world stage premiere at the Haymarket. It follows the story of Sita, an illiterate Indian villager, who is kidnapped on the eve of her marriage, escapes but is raped trying to find her way home. She is befriended by a transvestite who earns his living as a travelling entertainer and together they make the journey back to Sita’s home – he dressed as a woman, she as the man for her own safety. What is entertaining for British theatre is undoubtedly a challenging and controversial one for Indian culture, as cross-dressing men, a harsh questioning of gender roles within Indian society and the appalling treatment of woman as submissive objects are not subjects to be dealt with lightly.
Murari manages to create a pacy story which is full of humour and pathos without treating his issues irreverently.
Indian film star Rahul Bose excels as the cross-dressing Lakshmi/Lakshman, womanly without being effeminate yet always maintaining a hint of maleness, and Parminder Nagra’s Sita blossoms with increasing maturity as she struggles to encompass the masculinity she despises in her quest for revenge on her attacker and a way home.
By Lizz Brain
Visit Timeri N. Murari's website for extended reflections on The Square Circle and his other work