Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Image by Richard Hubert Smith
Image by Richard Hubert Smith

A giant set of scales hangs in the middle of the stage for a significant chunk of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, as though pretending at some sort of justice for the inhabitants of the Mumbai slum it depicts. It is, in fact, used for the far more immediate and practical purpose of weighing rubbish that has been collected, sold, sorted and will be sold again to recycling companies. This web of industry forms the livelihood of many of Annawadi’s 3,000 inhabitants; their lives the focus first of Katherine Boo’s account of the 3 years she spent in the slum, and now David Hare’s adaptation of the same name for the Olivier stage.

The National being, wonderfully, the National, there’s a highly informative document available for free online, detailing some of the research done by the cast and production team, and including a rehearsal diary. There’s a texture and a chaos to the world of Rufus Norris’ production that has, at odds with its real world counterpart, been quite meticulously planned and executed. It makes for wonderful reading to see how the National’s first entirely British-Asian cast have felt about bringing Annawadi to the stage, as it’s a production that raises many a question. There’s a perfectly good book by a Pulitzer prize winning journalist already in existence; why dramatise it? Why have two Western white men interpret the writing of a Western white woman about the lives of Indian people?

Well, I don’t have a definitive answer to either, I’m afraid, except to say that from my admittedly white, Western perspective, this doesn’t feel like poverty porn. It is at times deeply uncomfortable, but its characters are people with their own voice, their own victories, failures, complex maliciousness and simple kindness. What does pound through the entire piece is the question of fairness, and of justice. Of whether these have any bearing on the lives of those living behind the Beautiful Forevers – the slogan-plastered billboards masking the slum from the highway which whisks those with money and freedom to and from the adjacent airport – and how much of this is down to personal responsibility in as much as it is to the police, to aid workers, to government policies.

The three families around which Boo’s book and Hare’s drama circle are plagued by the pursuit of justice; Fatima (Thusitha Jayasundera) for peace and quiet from her neighbours, who have earned a little money and are re-tiling their home; the Husains, for the proof of their innocence when later accused of having a role in Fatima’s subsequent vengeful self-immolation; and Asha (Stephanie Street), the wannabe slumlord who makes innumerable sacrifices to ensure that her daughter Manju (Anjana Vasan) may have an education and a life outside Annawadi.

“Don’t be different – don’t stick out!”, Abdul Husain (Shane Zaza) warns his mother, Zehrunisa (a gloriously sweary Meera Syal), when she reveals her plan to show off their money by installing new tiles. It catches somewhere, sounding familiar, until I realise that I’ve heard that before. Here, in the Washington Post’s feature ‘An Ex-Con Reviews Orange Is The New Black’. Prison; the other place you don’t want to stick out. The more …Beautiful Forevers goes on, the more this feeling  stays with me. The hotbed of simmering tensions between slum inhabitants (whether religious, educational or aspirational), the confusing levels of corruption, the distance of life beyond its borders… Annawadi feels like a life sentence.

Though not without humour even in its darker moments, reflecting if anything the reality of an existence in which abject suffering and everyday life are somewhat blurred together, and despite not always hanging together dramatically – the busy and elaborate staging often puncturing the flow of the piece, particularly in the second half – …Beautiful Forevers feels like it wants to question our idea of justice. That Annawadi exists, that its children die, that it is shielded from the road by billboards like great, big FUCK YOUs of capitalism – the very bottom of which system its inhabitants are scrabbling around in, that the financial crash can make the impossibly poor even poorer… yet that Abdul’s own sense of what is right and wrong might make his life anew. I don’t particularly think that the show aims to punch through with a message – reality is as averse to tidy morals as it is respectful of dramatically effective endings – but it is a reminder that justice is not inherent in any system, even one that shares its name, and that people will always find a way to make their own.

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