Guru of Chai Review (Belvoir, Sydney)
By: Ben Neutze, 19 May 2017
Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis’s Guru of Chai is based, very loosely, on the Indian fairytale, Punchkin. It’s a story which won’t be familiar to much of Belvoir’s audience but, like most western fairytales, it has a spirit of playfulness and fun, which eventually gives way to a darker and more violent tone.
But when Rajan, who plays every character in Guru of Chai, first appears to the audience as our narrator, and the poor, titular chai-seller, Kutisar, he promises that all the audience’s troubles will be solved by the end of the night.
Belvoir’s Artistic Director, Eamon Flack, has apparently told Kutisar that the theatre company’s audience is unhappy. They drink too much, they’re in dead-end jobs, and they’re a little bit fat. Not to worry — he has the story to cure us.
One day, while selling his tea at Bangalore Central Station, Kutisar comes across seven young orphaned girls, singing to earn enough money to survive. Kutisar soon becomes a kind of surrogate uncle to these girls, and while six of the seven marry early in their adult lives, the last one, Balna, struggles to find a match.
Officer Punchkin, the policeman who has kept the girls away from the dangerous criminal figures lurking around Bangalore, soon expresses his love for Balna, but the match is not to be. Balna instead falls head-over-heels for a young poet.
Rajan, accompanied by musician Adam Ogle, never lets things become too dark, although our problems aren’t solved quite as simply as he first suggested. We might expect some great spiritual experience or knowledge from Kutisar, but who is he to deliver it? Is there really some great lesson to be learnt here, from this story about family, corruption and cock-fighting?
Rajan tells the story with extraordinary clarity and warmth, switching between various characters with often just a simple shift of vocal tone or a slightly altered stance. He’s particularly convincing as both Balna and Officer Punchkin, while Ogle’s guitar-playing seems to conjure up the sounds, as well as the sights and smells, of the bustling Bangalore station.
The storytelling elements are all laid fairly bare for the audience, using just a few basic props, a touch of illusion, and even a little bit of shadow puppetry.
Guru of Chai is ultimately just one man doing his best to tell his audience a story. And sometimes that’s all you want from a night at the theatre.