Tag Archives: Gary Pillai

Don’t Mind If Ado

Courtyard Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 31st July, 2012

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Courtyard Theatre, mothballed for a while, is back in business with this vibrant and colourful production of Shakespeare’s quintessential romantic comedy. Director Iqbal Khan sets the play in present-day India, a relocation that works very well – on the face of it. Issues of chastity and arranged marriages are at the heart of the conflict, and the caste system provides a ready-made underclass of servants and messengers other relocations have to struggle to accommodate.

There is an amusing pre-show as you settle into your seat – once you’ve dodged the washing lines in the aisles and there are more bicycles than in a chain of Irish pubs – and as soon as the play proper begins, the inflection and cadence of the Indian accents works very well with Shakespeare’s prose (and the verse too, in the dramatic scenes).

Madhav Sharma is a dignified but warm-hearted Leonato who opens his house to a troop of soldiers on their return from a victory in war. Paul Bhattacharjee’s Benedick is likeable enough although I couldn’t get past his resemblance to the young Boris Karloff. The joke about his name (“Bendy Dick”) is perhaps a little overused. Kulvinder Ghir’s Borachio, coarse, vulgar henchman to the baddie, is an earthy characterisation. He is driven by his appetites and pisses like a racehorse. I’m not even joking. Villain of the piece is a brooding Gary Pillai as Don John the Bastard, setting himself apart from the verbal exuberance of the rest of this society and manipulating events towards tragedy. There is a hint of Yul Brynner and Lex Luthor about him (he’s bald, is what I’m trying to convey).

Big name draw, Meera Syal is perfectly cast as the sparky, witty Beatrice, wise-cracking but with an undercurrent of sadness and perhaps loneliness. She is elegant but fragile; her wise-cracks form a protective shield. She is not quite matched by Bhattacharjee’s Benedick but you still root for the pair to get together.

Where the production stumbles is with the physical comedy. The scenes in which Benedick and then Beatrice overhear about their supposed love for each other don’t realise their potential. In the first, there is too much of a little servant girl trying to hand the hiding Benedick the book he requested. In the second, the gossip is relayed by the loudspeaker of a mobile phone, robbing the conspirators of interaction and eye-contact. And why “Ursula” has been usurped by Verges, the supposedly elderly partner in the play’s cop duo, I don’t know.

The scenes with the Watch try to upstage the wonderful comic interplay of the script with some unfocussed and raucous ‘business’ out of keeping with the generally civilised conduct of the rest. I liked Simon Nagra’s Dogberry but mostly because he provides a lot of amusement in the pre-show.

At one point – the wedding scene – members of the audience are pulled up to sit on cushions. All well and good if they don’t sit there grinning as the drama unfolds. I found them a distraction from the main action.

On the whole though, it is an entertaining evening with Shakespeare’s dazzling script outshining everything. The look and sound of the piece is evocative and it was rather hot in the auditorium. All that was lacking was the aroma of cooked spices… I compensated for this oversight after the performance by directing my feet to the nearby Thespian’s Indian restaurant.

Djinn Trap

Birmingham REP at mac, Wednesday 18th April, 2012

An exorcism has been botched. A teenager is dead. The man who performed the exorcism is jailed on a manslaughter charge. What makes this supernatural thriller different from others of the genre is that Roman Catholicism is not the starring religion. Neither is Voodoo. This time it’s Islam at the core of the conflict. This innovation keeps the drama fresh.

This new play by Naylah Ahmed keeps the audience intrigued as the mystery unfolds and tension builds. The prisoner, the titular Mustafa (a softly spoken and dignified Munir Khairdin) is put in isolation – a disused wing of the prison is re-opened just for him – following an incident in the dining hall. His lawyer Shabir (the excellent Gary Pillai) is also his brother. It is in the scenes between these two that the writing is at its best. One is a mullah, the other is a lapsed Muslim who likes a drink and the “easy life”. And so an extra layer is added to the central conflict. Shabir doesn’t believe the djinn Mustafa drove from the boy is now possessing his brother. And at first, the audience is presented with clues that yes he might be, or no, he’s mentally ill.

Of course, being a ghost story, the play has to uphold the belief that these supernatural beings exist – if only for the purposes of plot development at least. It made me think of the use of religion in entertainment. It happens all the time. Greek mythology fills cinema screens to this day. Christianity (usually Catholic) is a staple of horror films from Dracula to The Exorcist to Drag Me To Hell. Does their place in these stories validate them or reduce them to tropes in story-telling? This play has the same failings as others of its type. Those who believe will come away with a different feeling to those who don’t. I am willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride as long as the ride is an effective one.

We also meet two ‘screws’. They are a pair of bickering Brummies played by Paul McCleary and Ryan Early. My problem with these two is it’s difficult to distinguish when they are providing comic relief from when they are trying to be menacing. When the djinn manifests itself, in the form of the younger prison officer, it is laughably unthreatening, suffering the worst dialogue of the piece. Ahmed strings together vernacular idioms and colloquialisms as though writing Naturalism by numbers. “That Mo’s a goon, who’s been in and out of here since he was sixteen – he doesn’t know jack.” The dialogue is slang-heavy to the extent it sounds unreal. Sometimes plain-speaking is more effective than trying to capture local colour.

As the play draws to its conclusion and Mustafa strives to prevent the djinn from claiming another victim, lights fizzle and pop, smoke billows about –there is a nifty bit of misdirection with a fire extinguisher – but The Woman In Black this ain’t. Better handled, this could be a taut little chiller with something to say about Westernisation as well as providing a few scares. Although the plot kept me intrigued, the tension was diluted by the overwritten dialogue and Mustafa ended up, I’m sorry to say, a bit of a damp squib.