Rani Moorthy is deceptive.
Entering the cramped studio, she enlists audience members to drape saris over every available space. She cups my face in her warm hands. She potters and fusses and welcomes us in. I set myself up for a cosy 80 minutes. Already the words I’ll write are forming in my mind: heartwarming, uplifting, inviting, lovely.
In those opening few minutes, the story that unfurls is one of twists and knots. A kindly mother figure’s obsession with her saris seems to represent both a freedom and a burden. The delicate, swooping silks are pride, culture, tradition, but they are also beautifully woven vices, constricting the female bodies they enshroud.
But Moorthy is still warm. She’s kind. She tells stories of going for tea, of PTA meetings and inattentive children. I can feel her welcome exuding from every pore as audience members are embraced and invited on stage. It’s not the combative form of audience participation I’m used to. No darting eyes desperately avoiding her invitation. She flirts, fawns, sits on laps. Saris are gifted across the audience like sweets. It’s playful, we are home.
What feels like seconds later, the thread is cut. Moorthy’s second story, that of a transgender man living with the burden of the sari as he tries to find his new identity, is delivered through rapid fire poetry. Moorthy’s softness and accommodation is cut short, she has our attention now. The writing is frenetic and cut-glass in its precision, and she contorts her body in defiance and command around the stage. Moorthy has lulled her audience into a false sense of security and ensnared us. She’s taken my ‘lovely’ and shown me precisely where to shove it.
Through five different women’s stories, Moorthy shows us just what a performative powerhouse she is. She is not afraid to unsettle and challenge her audience in this ambitious, mercurial production. Monologue, poetry, documentary, numerous languages and startling physicality are all expertly invoked to investigate the meaning of the sari, and each new portrayal delivers a fresh blow to our expectations. Kimberley Sykes’ direction supports the piece, making great use of the traverse stage and further developing the complex relationship between audience and performer, but it is Moorthy’s show from beginning to end.
A play with such raw, brilliant honesty and a rich, fearless voice deserves to be seen. Whose Sari Now? takes an object steeped in gendered cultural significance and examines it with sharp-eyed, scientific specificity. Moorthy knows how to connect, how to challenge, how to subvert the story. It’s worth mentioning that the saris themselves are also beautiful. They shapeshift. They are ritual, convention, decoration, celebration, life force and protection. The long sheafs of cotton and silk are as versatile as Moorthy herself, and it’s a treat to watch them change from friends, to foes to babies, nooses, gifts and back again.
Whose Sari Now? ends as it begins, with Moorthy kindly guiding us to the conclusion. She’s back in mother hen mode now, bringing us down from the savage heights of her storytelling abilities. The saris are collected, folded up, pulled down. The world is dismantled. We are back in ‘lovely’ mode when she smiles and presses a hand into my shoulder. Behind the warmth and welcome, there’s a power. In my shoulder, I feel the unexpected weight of years of cultural expression and oppression. ‘Lovely’ doesn’t quite feel the right word anymore.
Whose Sari Now? is on at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 17th December 2016. Click here for more details.