If God did not exist, according to the well-worn Voltaire quote, it would be necessary to invent him. Deities – real or imagined – are at the heart of Aditi Brennan Kapil’s play, which takes Voltaire’s statement as a starting point of sorts. In today’s world, what need have we for divine beings?
Told in flashback, Kapil’s plot also borrows from the good old dramatic tradition of the newly arrived outsider. Kalki turns up, swift and unexpected as the rainstorm that accompanies her, right in the middle of a religious studies class. Just as rapidly, she befriends two bickering schoolgirls – known only as “Meat” and “Betty”, the nicknames Kalki christens them with – and throws their lives into temporary, gleeful chaos. Then, like the rain, she evaporates. The only difference with this new girl is that she might just be the 10th incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.
All this is revealed in snatches, as Kalki’s best friends are questioned by a cop apparently on the hunt for the mysterious girl-cum-god. It’s a play – and a production from Alex Brown – that peels itself back bit by bit. Not given to brevity, Angela Terence and Jordan Loughran’s evasive classmates slowly flesh out their fleeting acquaintance with Kalki, from house parties to cinema trips to schoolyard spats. The drab, bureaucratic surroundings of Madeleine Girling’s set are repeatedly and startlingly split open, as coloured lights usher in Kalki’s dazzling presence.
The teasingly unravelled narrative drops frequent – and not too subtle – hints about the identity of its elusive protagonist. But Kapil’s vision of this final avatar of Vishnu, foretold to destroy all evil at the end of time, seems just as indebted to the comics read eagerly by Kalki’s companions as it is to Hindu scripture. Instead of arriving on a white horse, this harbinger of the apocalypse is an arse-kicking bad girl in ripped jeans and heavy eyeliner – the daydream alter ego, in other words, of every bored and bullied teenage girl.
Ultimately, Kapil’s play feels less about religion and more about the visceral, life-and-death experience of being a teenager, when every day might herald the end of the world. The supposedly life-shattering cosmic force that is Kalki is less vivid than the brutality and asphalt of the school playground. For “Meat” and “Betty”, both cruelly spurned by the cool kids, school is nothing less than a battlefield. Who wouldn’t want a god on their side in that relentless war?
Terence and Loughran make brilliantly believable teenagers, each an endearing mess of bravado, hormones and vulnerability. The problem is that alongside their all-too-earthly confusion, Amrita Acharia’s Kalki comes across as a flat if shimmering mirage of a girl. Not quite human, not quite divine, neither Brown’s production nor Acharia’s performance seems fully convinced by this immortal trickster. Just what are we supposed to make of Kapil’s creation?
The answer never quite arrives. Just as Voltaire’s words hang in the air, so too does the unexplained significance of Kalki’s sudden appearance. Kapil’s play has a certain appealing strangeness – how often do you see teenage angst bumped up against visiting gods? – but its extended riff on fantasy, religion and adolescence fades as quickly and enigmatically as its protagonist.