‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ was always going to be a difficult story to adapt. Hefty in emotion and in intricate description, the Pulitzer-winning non-fiction novel by Katherine Boo involves several complex characters and a plot tough to crush into just over two hours. Thanks to David Hare, the story has been brought to life on stage at the National Theatre (find out more about timings and tickets here).
Before anyone who hasn’t read the book gets confused — the storyline is all about rubbish, and those who pick it up in the surrounding Muslim slums of Mumbai airport in India. But beyond the rubble is a story about three families desperate to survive in a harsh, corrupt society where their fragile ecosystem is permanently under threat of being wiped away by bulldozers which lurk outside. It’s not a lighthearted production – it tells the story, warts and all, and doesn’t shy away from burnings, beatings and stabbings along the way.
Asha (Stephanie Street) and her family are at the top of the slum’s food chain – and are beating off people who are asking for help from below. All hope lies with Manju (Anjana Vasan), set to be the first girl in the slums to go to university, if finding out her mother’s secret to success doesn’t get in her way, of course.
Zehrunisa, played by the brilliant Meera Syai, and her son Abdul (Shane Zaza) try to make a living through selling stolen rubbish, but all goes awry when their next door neighbour, the crippled Fatima (Thusitha Jayasundera) decides to strike back against their good luck with sinister consequences. Soon, the family finds itself torn apart and facing trial while their hopes for prosperity dwindle completely.
The props were nothing short of spectacular, with rain and rubbish falling on stage in the first act and revolving sets for the slums, the police station and the hospital used throughout the play. The use of the stage, the rigging and lighting was clever throughout, although at times excessive and distracting from the story at hand.
Unfortunately, the strength of Fatima’s plot means that storylines such as Manju and Meena’s covert friendship to exchange academia in the bathroom and Sunil’s struggle against turning into a thief become mere sidenotes to the main action – warnings on the dangers of greed and the stifling of a young life through tradition.
Syai, Jayasundera and Street provide enough force on their own to merit watching the play – particularly when they are on stage together – but you find yourself looking to see when they will return when they are gone. There was a pervading sense that the audience should care about the fates of secondary actors — such as the thief who gets knifed or Meena’s loss of hope — but they honestly weren’t on stage long enough to make a lasting impression. At times, the play appeared to be trying too hard to tell several stories and only successfully telling one.
After watching, it’s hard to say whether the play will please those who love a tale about an underdog, a taste of India or a bit of social realism on a night out. What it will do is provide a lot of food for thought and a longer answer to the question of “So did you like it?”.