An Enduring, Honest and Mesmerising Milestone in New Zealand Theatre

By Steve La Hood (Theatreview)

After 25 years I haven’t forgotten about the mask…

Tonight, at Te Raukura ki Kāpiti, a full house – especially including a schoolgroup in the front row just below me, their faces lit by the stage, craning forward, succumbed to the mask.
The schoolgroup goes from wtf to omg at the very first, very fast, mask-change from Gobi to Zena. Once that disbelief has been dispatched, the whole audience ‘rings the bell above the door’, enters Krishnan’s Dairy and relaxes into this finely-tuned masterpiece from writer-performer Jacob Rajan and director Justin Lewis.

Surely everyone knows the story of Krishnan’s Dairy? You know, the newly-settled corner-dairy owner, Gobi, who sees a future in this ‘New World’, and his truculent wife, Zena, who pines for life with her doubtfully famous cousins and uncles in India. “It’s cold and there’s nobody here!”
Jacob Rajan plays both characters, snap-changing masks from Gobi to Zena, physically becoming the two separate personalities, between lines, between words, between looks. It’s technically precise work – a mistake would be disastrous.

It’s also hilarious. In the mask, Gobi is a puff-cheek Charlie Chaplin, Zena a deadpan Lucille Ball. The slapstick timing with the cash-register, updating to eft-pos (“It takes a while to connect…”), the bell above the door of the shop, the moon… it’s all so engrossing.

The dialogue has distilled over the years. Sometimes it’s Arkwright versus Nurse Gladys, or Desi chastising Lucy, or Martha baiting George. The audience around me bubbles and cackles, oohs and awws and guffaws at the word-play and the antics. It could’ve been written yesterday.

There’s another story too. It starts in the middle of one of Gobi and Zena’s interminable arguments. Shah Jahan and his legendary love for Mumtaz Mahal. Mumtaz is represented by a mask on the back of Jacob’s head, while Jahan is the forward-facing mask. The schoolgroup giggles a bit at the idea of a mask on the back of Jacob’s head… even more so when he makes that character dance – backwards.

But at that shocking moment in the performance just before the epilogue, there are shrieks – unchecked, terrified shrieks from the kids and a heaving gasp from the whole theatre!
Underneath the funniest comedies there’s always a vein of sadness, or a barb of truth that gets right into you. Krishnan’s Dairy is a sad story. Yes, the ending is redemptive and we leave uplifted through the tragedy – but Krishnan’s Dairy still packs a punch after all these years. We, the audience, are the unseen, dismissive, racist customers. It’s still a compelling theatrical event performed by a truly masterful performer.

In every beat, every sound cue, the way the lighting makes the characters’ eyes glitter behind the masks, the soulful guitar of Adam Ogle, the passing of time by that old Shakespearian trick of using clever placards… Krishnan’s Dairy is brilliant.

This tour will be the last time Jacob performs Krishnan’s Dairy.
It’s on for 2 more nights here in Paraparaumu, then in September it will play in Christchurch, Hamilton and Wellington. This is your last chance then. Others might/should study and perform the play in the future, because it is an enduring and honest milestone in New Zealand theatre. Until September though, if you’re quick enough, you can still be mesmerised, swept-away by the magical performance of Jacob Rajan.