Review: David Hare's Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre
At one point during Behind The Beautiful Forevers a huge passenger jet flies overhead. It is a visual and sound effect that brilliantly recreates the noise, vibration and proximity of the slum setting, nestled close to the perimeter of Mumbai Airport.
It's not the only part of the production that attempts to capture the dirty, rubbish strewn, make do and mend settlement that the characters of the play call home. For weeks the staff at the National Theatre have been donating plastic bottles to be crumpled and dirtied up ready for the set.
Adapted by David Hare from Katherine Boo's non-fiction book about the people she spent two years getting to know in the airport slum, plastic bottles and other rubbish are currency. What people throw away can be collected, pulled apart and then sold for scrap and recycling. But it is hard and often dangerous work. The 'pickers' are not always welcome and there is campaign to clean up the city, encourage people not to drop litter.
It is the drive to make money that is central to the story. From those living in poverty who want food, shelter and harbour ambitions to get an earring or get out to a home not living under the threat of demolition, to those higher up ladder who just want more.
Sometimes relentlessly grim this is not a rags-to-riches, smile-on-the-face story like Slumdog Millionnaire. This is a story of a social immobility and injustice born out of culture of corruption and bribes. It is also a story of petty prejudices, jealousy and snobbery where a silly argument causes devastation for one family.
At the beginning we are told of Mumbai's ambitions to become a contender on the world financial stage but in order to do that it needs to clean up. Hare's play shows the extent of the problem both metaphorically and physically by following Zehrunisa (Meera Syal) and her family as their relatively successful scrap business leads to jealousy in their community and that argument which propels them onto the wrong side of the law and at the mercy of corrupt officials.
The play has racism and sexual inequality at its fringes although it is the matriarchs that seem to rule the roosts, in the households of the play at least.
There is a glimmer of light in the darkness in a few younger characters. Zehrunisa's son Abdul (Shane Zaza), a gentle soul who wants to live honestly. And the daughters who are determined to educate themselves into a better life but the framing remains bleak. If that was Hare's intention then he has achieved it. It is a play that frustrates and angers - frustration with the people and anger with the injustice - but I'd have liked just a little more soul to have truly connected.
Behind The Beautiful Forevers is spectacular in its grim and frenetic execution and an achievement in vision and direction, it is also thought provoking and challenging but something alienating in its relentlessness.
It runs in rep at the National Theatre on the Olivier stage until April 13 and is two hours and 50 minutes long with an interval.