“There’s nearly twice as many people alive now than when you were born,” says thirteen-year-old Shona (Aysha Kala) to her mum Jyoti (Anjana Vasan) in a house somewhere in London. Jyoti turns away because she does not like being reminded of any responsibility towards others, instead preferring to live in a world of perpetual myth-making.
Jyoti and her husband Rasik ended up in London via newly-independent India and warring Kenya. They’re immigrants tossed about by the political upheavals and rebellions resulting from colonial rule. Some might say they are unconscious profiteers, or just ordinary people desperate to give their kids a chance.
Either way, in playwright Vinay Patel’s hands their boats of ambition become precarious vessels riding stormy seas – although the couple has a complicated relationship with water. “That’s the point of the sea, makes you think twice about leaving the land,” says Shubham Saraf’s Rasik to his bride who is younger than she lets on. There is more than nervousness in his voice. No wonder, this is India in the 1950s where young girls have little control over their lives and where men like Rasik look for hope on the horizon under the constant threat of violence. In accepting Rasik as her husband, Jyoti exercises the small amount of control she has by pretending she’s pulling all the strings: director Madani Younis has her strutting around on Rosanna Vize’s gold stage as if she is the mistress of her own destiny.
But she’s living in a fantasy and we see how isolated she is when Sally Ferguson’s spotlight falls upon the vulnerable figure. The strong light also alludes to the couple’s obsession with films and their habit of seeing their life in cinematic terms, as if only the close up can make things palatable.
A bid to escape a India sends the couple to Kenya where they become, for Kenyans, unwitting symbols of British colonial power. Rasik, working for Public Works, stares down his camera at David, a member of the Kikuyus tribe, who he is documenting and whose land he will buy. He’s immersed in his job, but we know he is not really in control. It’s the same when Jyoti appears on a British documentary in London years later to deny allegiance with the striking women of Dagenham: she is so entranced by the cameras that she fails to understand she is not calling the shots. The audience do, however, and the film comes back to haunt Jyoti when she is politicised and her daughter presents her with the old tapes, commenting: “fascism is not genetic”.
The struggle to survive in a world where those who hold the real power are often invisible, and where people will do anything in order to rise, makes everyone hide their real selves. In Kenya, Rusik strikes up a friendship with David, a rebel with the loosely-named Mau Mau movement. But all the time we can see David putting on an act, even in the way he squares up to Rasik’s camera.
The scene may have the audience laughing – there is something tragicomic about Martins Imhangbe’s David – but this is a man who, in his own country, is forced to live in overcrowded reserves. Soon after, a movement interlude dramatises the racial tensions between Asians and Kenyans, between Rasik and David, and whose story gets told and how. Their silhouettes are black against video designer Louise Rhodes-Brown’s white canvas. David’s looms large over the crouching young Jyoti and slight Rasik. But for what? He can’t control how he is perceived, he is just a “Black body on a white screen.”
Community vs individualism is a big theme here, alongside identity. Years pass and Jyoti and Rasik age, with Jyoti struggling to control her independent daughter. Others like David don’t age though. We can see how those who suffered during the brutal struggle for independence are trapped in time by their torturous experiences. Shona also seems imprisoned by Jyoti’s outdated fears. It might seem that Rasik and Jyoti are the only ones who are free, but this assumption is false. Hauntingly, Rasik and Jyoti’s older selves (Nila Aalia and Selva Rasalingham) wander the stage like ghosts. Youth and age, past and future, stare at each other across a divide that is more than just time. Did they really have a choice in anything?
Occasionally the focus of the production is on argument at the expense of dramatic tension. But Younis and Patel are not shy of reminding us that we are watching theatre and that this play is itself a product of colonisation – and the trauma it has left behind.
An Adventure is on until 20 October 2018 at Bush Theatre. Click here for more details.