Billed as a “show in development” this 60 minute piece – by definition – needs more work. But it is already an arresting hour of intimate theatre.
I have known for a very long time about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in which hundreds (there is no accurate record of exactly how many) of Indian families were shot for “insurrection” by British Troops in 1919. But many British people don’t and I certainly wasn’t taught about it at school. They tended not to dwell on British shame when I was growing up.
Samaadhi explores the horror of that event and reflects on colonial policy from a number of angles. And part of the aim is to make the appalling events of 1919 better known. We meet an old man remembering. We see early silent film actors discovering bullet holes in a wall. We hear the poetic, chilling rhetoric of the officer in charge and we watch a lot of shooting and dying. It’s pretty uncompromising, visceral theatre for grown ups.
Mohit Mathur and Ivantiy Novak, the two actors who make all this happen, are both highly accomplished performers. The play uses mime, dance and physical theatre as well as speech – and maybe that’s one of the areas which needs refining because the structure feels episodically bitty in places and some of the sequences are arguably too long. The opening scene in which they are silent film actors with ragtime piano background is, for example, entertaining and beautifully done but feels a bit self indulgent given what the piece is actually about.
Novak, who wrote the play, has a quality of eloquent stillness and attentive listening which I found compelling. And he has one of the most attractive speaking voices I’ve heard in a young actor for a very long time – I hope he’s going to record some poetry (Shakespeare sonnets maybe) very soon if he hasn’t already done so.
Mathur is intensely moving as the elderly grandfather telling his grandson what he remembers and when he depicts a man confronting a wolf, which presumably symbolises the enemy. Both men are lithe, eloquent dancers and the choreography of the balletic movement sequences is excellent.
All this is accomplished without set and using just pink and blue Indian floral scarves, a walking stick and a single bullet. The scarves mostly show which side the man is on – red for Britain and blue for India and are folded and tied in different, imaginative ways to suggest, for example, a turban or a skirt. Even so the characterisation isn’t yet always clear as we move from one scenario to another. Perhaps as the piece develops the audience could be given slightly more explicit visual clues.
This was the first time I’ve been to the Bridge House Theatre, Penge since it reopened under new management. It now uses an upstairs black box studio space and has a pretty busy and eclectic opening programme. We had to vacate the auditorium quickly after Samaadhi because they needed to set up for a production about internet dating. Variety and all that!
First published by Sardines: https://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/review/samaadhi/