Glorious, Skillful, Important, Captivating and Impermanent
The show’s programme reminds us that “we’re lucky to be in one of the few places in the world where live performance is still possible” and I certainly feel lucky to be seeing this show. It is described as a development season, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens next with this charming, engaging, often profound and beautifully crafted piece of theatre.
The show begins with a lone figure, played by Jacob Rajan, who appears to have landed in the space from somewhere else. I enjoy the way that he takes his time to get up and start to explore the space, and there are some lovely moments as he eventually notices and engages with the audience. We hear an answer phone message that introduces this character as Kutisar, and he tells us he works at Harvey Norman. By the end of the show, I realise that this is the first of many details that are woven skilfully throughout the piece, in order to payoff later, thus showing how much thought and detail has gone into the crafting of the play.
Kutisar attempts to find a way out of the space only to find an inferno through the first door he tries. He approaches another, much more attractive-sounding door, only to have it slammed in his face. This sequence showcases the skilfully rendered sound effects and music (designed, composed and performed live by David Ward) that support and ground the action. With only one actor on stage for most of the show, these sound effects enlarge and enhance the world of the play, surrounding the audience and bringing them into this varied and vibrant world.
As we begin to make some guesses about where Kutisar may be, a second character, a vulture – a gorgeously rendered puppet, created and operated by Jon Coddington – appears. This piques our interest, and the interaction between Kutisar and the bird prompts Kutisar to take us to the beginning of his story.
Now Rajan shows his physical skill, as we head back to the ’80s to see Kutisar enjoying himself in a nightclub in Mumbai, before meeting the self-possessed and confident Meera. This meeting is the catalyst for the rest of the story, and it is a joy to see Rajan’s facility in moving physically and vocally between the characters. He doesn’t miss a beat switching between Kutisar and Meera as they leave the nightclub, and end up in the wealthiest area in Mumbai, at the Tower of Silence.
This is where Parsi families give their loved ones a ‘sky burial’, leaving them to be consumed by vultures. Meera is distraught to find there are no vultures and so bodies are not being consumed. She is determined to investigate why the vultures are disappearing and this takes her and Kutisar on a journey full of twists, turns and learning to uncover the truth.
As the journey begins, Meera is still running her late grandfather’s kulfi (ice cream’s Indian ancestor) shop, although she has always yearned to be a scientist. Kutisar is overawed by the fact that she has such a well-known business, and muses that kulfi’s impermanence is both its beauty and its value: once it’s gone we can never experience the exact same flavour again, but we can try by buying more. The view that things are made more beautiful by their ephemeral nature resonates throughout the play and is also true of every piece of theatre. The search to find those things that are seemingly impermanent is at the heart of theatre-making as well as the journey that Kutisar and Meera undertake.
Lighting (designed by Andrew Potvin) and set (designed by John Verryt) combine with the sound throughout this journey to create a whole range of beautifully realised places and moods. The set is a versatile space that uses rear projection to create an array of vistas and places, allowing the action to move quickly and seamlessly through different locations and times.
Rajan also works seamlessly to introduce more characters as the story unfolds: members of Meera’s family, Dr Prakash (a scientist from the local museum) and, forebodingly, a chillingly calm debt-collector chasing Kutisar for outstanding finance on his chai cart. Through it all, Rajan creates these memorable characters with great economy of voice and physicality, exemplified by a wonderful quick-fire sequence where he switches between four arguing characters at great speed.
Many themes resonate through the play as the traditional and the modern clash, and we see the constraints and expectations that Meera and Kutisar are subjected to. Despite their best efforts, both are denied opportunities by their circumstances, leaving us to wonder how many of these constraints have still not been removed.
The story unfolds, weaving many seemingly disparate strands together and educating us about the vultures as Kutisar and Meera unravel the mystery of their disappearance. In his programme note, Jacob Rajan explains that as a playwright, he is “led by … curiosity. I’m curious about things I don’t know about and then I research them and write about them as if I do.” This great curiosity and depth of research is utterly apparent throughout the show, as I learn so much about a culture and an animal with which I am very unfamiliar. I’m saddened to find that the plight of India’s vultures is a real one, and that they truly have suffered what Dr. Prakash tells Meera is the “fastest extinction of all time.”
I enjoy the learning as much as I enjoy the characters and the story that leads to an unexpected and powerful ending. I enjoy the creators’ instinct to create humour alongside sombre moments, and I arrive at the end of the show marvelling at the level of craftsmanship that has gone into this creation.
This is a glorious show, full of wonderfully crafted writing, skilful performance and important ideas. The way small details are introduced and then woven through the play to pay off at precisely the right moment is masterful. This is gorgeous (and enormously educational) storytelling by a group of creatives who certainly know how to engage and entertain an audience.
At the time of writing, the whole season at TAPAC appears to be sold out, which is a testament to the Indian Ink’s reputation for quality shows. For me, this is a wonderful introduction to the world of Indian Ink; I am totally captivated and keen to see more of this work. We are fortunate to be able to experience live theatre at the moment and this is a show that I would happily encourage as many people as possible to experience.