Historians create narratives out of ordered facts. Aristotle claimed that Poetics, Greek drama included, offered a superior epistemological insight to history because it taps more effectively into universals beyond facts. But of course, this is a subjective narrative too. If plays could be remedial of a century of historical misinformation though, Lions and Tigers by Tanika Gupta is one way to begin.
Through her play, Tanika Gupta and director Pooja Ghai draw us into the multiplicity of history. The play follows events surrounding the Writers’ Building attack in 1930, for which Tanika Gupta’s great-uncle, Dinesh Gupta – having grown up in the shadow of the 1919 Amritsar massacre and joined the nationalist Bengali Tigers – was imprisoned and hanged aged 19.
There are three story tellers in the room: the history we have brought with us, fragmented, likely caricatured; the dramatic narrative that has been wrought and the emotional truths recounted in poignant verbatim letters. These strands jostle and juggle. They challenge each other and at times themselves. What begins as static political figures arguing it out as expositional embodiments of their ideologies, becomes increasingly human. Young and old forced into decisions; resigned or radical; ordinary and yet martyred for freedom.
The play progresses in a series of absorbing glimpses and references. There’s talk of Palestine and of Ireland. We are the Sinn Féin of India. Violence. Humour. Faith. In this skilful patchwork of scenes, it is difficult to take sides – other than wanting the British to leave forthwith, obviously.
Even Esh Alladi’s serene and measured Gandhi holds uncomfortable truths, and Shalini Peiris is entirely compelling as the young Kamala, on the threshold of marriage and torn by abandoning the fight for her nation as Sudha Bhuchar’s Bimala defiantly prepares the young men for violence. In his multiple roles, Jonathan Keeble becomes the faceless image of Empire. The tall man in a white suit or uniform, a blighting, near comical presence in India, were it not for the moments detailing the horrific violence he represents.
The attack itself, the central consequence and cause of this play, feels rushed, arriving in a short burst, and perhaps tripping over itself in its staging. In this myriad assortment of narratives, causation is not always obvious, but maybe this is more truthful than spelling it out. ‘How, exactly, did it come to this?’ is a potentially impossible question to answer even if you lived through the events, as the last political year has shown.
The whole cast creates a powerful rhythm on which Dinesh Gupta is buoyed to crescendo. Shubham Saraf beautifully manifests the eagerness of the 19 year old. His is a delicate performance, as much about soul as physical form, his lightness of being almost startling as he awaits execution. A reminder that truth is not one-faceted, and that drama can fill out history.
The play masterfully avoids expectations by refusing to linger on dramatic moments until the very end. However much Aristotle may have called this tragedy (impactful music by Arun Ghosh included), it makes something more original of its time on the intimate candle-lit stage. Although we do not get to engage with the characters much beyond their political motivations, the play’s many layers demand to be considered again, if not for the first time. Is violence intrinsically immoral? What are the present consequences of the master race being inherent in colonialism? Is living in slavery akin to not being alive? What is freedom and to whom? There is no catharsis here.
The success of this play comes in demonstrating that voices direct from the past are not echoes; they hit precisely. Thankfully these voices have been gifted a sharp production in which to continue being heard.
Lions and Tigers is on until 16 September 2017 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Click here for more details.