Wednesday 18 February 2009

Guilty impotence

The Indian Wants the Bronx, Young Vic, London

Much has been said and written recently about the Young Vic’s staging of King Lear in Rupert Goold’s production starring Pete Postlethwaite and Amanda Hale. On one hand, this helped draw the audience’s attention to what promises to be a 2009 renaissance for this theatre after a slightly sleepy 2008, with an extremely exciting programme ahead – including, among other things, the adaptation of a monologue by Franz Kafka in March, a live music and flm co-production with ENO directed by Katie Mitchell in April, and the too-rarely performed Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis in the summer. On the other hand, though, this King Lear might have unwittingly obscured another excellent piece of theatre, which is being staged at the same time in the smaller Clare theatre.

The Indian Wants the Bronx is a play in one act, written by American playwright and screenwriter Israel Horovitz. Originally produced and performed in 1968 in combination with another short work by the same author, It’s Called the Sugar Plum, it tells a story that will still sound remarkably familiar to people who live in big, cosmopolitan cities. One night, at a bus stop in New York, two young kids, Joey and Murph, wait for their ride home and joke around with each other. Then an Indian man, Gupta, comes along, and starts waiting for the bus, too; Gupta does not speak any English, he is clearly lost, and he obviously makes a very convenient object of comedy for the two bored and frustrated kids, who keep provoking and teasing him, playing with his incapability to understand. As name-calling escalates, the kids’ games get less and less innocuous, until Swiss Army knives come out, and the situation rapidly moves from disturbance of the peace to violence.

In its original production, The Indian Wants the Bronx won several Off-Broadway Awards, including Best Play, and Best Actor for an Italian-American and, at the time, relatively unknown boy called Al Pacino, in the role of Murph. This Young Vic version is directed by the very young (and very promising) Darljinder Singh, winner in 2008 of both the Arches Award for Stage Directors and the Young Vic Jerwood Directors Award (the other winner of the latter, Gbolahan Obisesan, will direct Barrie Keefe’s Sus in June).

Singh’s use of the small venue’s space is reminiscent of some of the Young Vic’s most brilliant productions, particularly the 2007 Brecht double-bills: without any real stage, and thus any real division between the actors and their audience, the Clare becomes a black, empty box, where a metal trash bin, an old public telephone and a basic wooden bench are enough to recreate any bus stop in any Western metropolitan city on any given night. The audience stands all around this set, with their backs against the wall, uncertain of whether they are allowed to sit or not – having been told to stand when they got in, many will then decide to sit during the performance, but the idea of inducing physical discomfort should not be lost, as it is probably not arbitrary, but intended to accompany the growing emotional one. White and blue neon lights illuminate the centre of the scene, low enough to keep the faces of the audience members on the other side dark, and buzzing and flickering enough to make us all feel the menacing, squalid nature of bus stops at night – a further contribution is given by Christopher Shutt’s cleverly controlled, unintrusive and yet fundamental sound effects.

All these mise-en-scène choices are extremely relevant and appropriate: it is because of them that, throughout the performance, the audience has the impression of looking at the bus stop from a very close, yet hidden corner of the street in front. When the actors move towards us, then, as they repeatedly do, coming up closer and closer, the audience almost catches its breath, fearing it has been discovered spying. When Joey and Murph shout in the audience’s direction, pacing around as in a cage, and become increasingly aggressive and unpleasant towards Gupta, it is hard not to feel the instinct of stepping in to put an end to it – one doesn’t, of course, because it is theatre and nothing is real, but one equally wouldn’t, most probably, in the street, for obvious reasons: not in this city, not if kids with knives are involved, not at night.

This suggestion of guilty impotence is very powerfully conveyed. As in Michael Haneke’s movie Funny Games, in which two apparently friendly young boys menace and torture a family, it is hard to establish, here, when exactly Joey and Murph cross the boundary between innocent jokes and unacceptable humiliation, or between teasing and actual menaces and then torture. As all appearances of civility are given up, we glance at the faces of those around us and wonder, who would say or do something, if it happened to us later tonight, waiting for our bus? Would we?

Because the plot of this 40-minute play is so apparently linear and also so inescapable, the text relies signifcantly on the actors to convey the disturbing quality of the events. Rob Ostlere makes a very good Joey, equally smug and scared of his more violent, more troubled friend Murph – ‘He knifed a kid’, Joey says to Gupta; ‘We knifed a kid’, Murph corrects him – funny and relatively friendly, particularly when left alone with ‘the Chief’, Gupta. He can do magic tricks and he seems a bit less ignorant than his friend, and we like him because we trust him to stop Murph from any excess. And it is good, for the economy of the play, that we are of course wrong.

Rehan Sheikh is a fawless Gupta, trusting and smiley at frst, then simply unable to understand, then outraged and then terrifed and sweaty. Robert Lonsdale as Murph is, perhaps, slightly too infuenced by having Al Pacino as his predecessor, but still very effectively scary, and he delivers an excellent version of the kind of arrogant, childish, angry teenager who can quickly turn from annoying to upsetting and terrifying. Both Lonsdale and Ostler suffer, unfortunately, from inadequate or perhaps insuffcient dialect coaching, and this is reflected not just in their unconvincing American accents, but also in their lack of confidence when it comes to the quick, snappy and aggressive slang bits in the dialogue. However, this is the only unconvincing element of an otherwise excellent production – a short, small hidden gem of this season’s theatre.


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