The peasants are revolting in Sahaspur. Under the command of corrupt Inspector Gangwar (Art Malik), the men have been humiliated and the women abused. A violent act too far threatens to tip the simple farming town over the edge. The scream of one young woman, Jyoti (Anya Chalotra), becomes a hurricane.
Adapted from 17th-century Spanish playwright Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna, April De Angelis’ The Village is Nadia Fall’s first production as artistic director of Theatre Royal Stratford East.
With it, Fall cements her commitment to Joan Littlewood’s legacy of revolutionary theatre. She honours Stratford East’s past – Fuenteovejuna was staged here by Littlewood in 1955 – while promising to be innovative. It’s not the most consistent production. Its fire is tempered by its slightly odd, layered staging, but it’s a radical statement of intent for the rest of Fall’s inaugural season.
The translation of the poetic Spanish drama to modern day India with Lancashire accents feels like a filter too many. It’s disorientating that modern characters speak in rhyming couplets that occasionally run towards greeting card style rhymes.
The epic poetry is an intelligent, stylistic choice but makes for some turgid language. An exception is Rina Fatania as Jyoti’s comic sidekick Panna, who wrings out every last laugh of the dialogue with her expressive, perfectly timed performance.
Throw in some contemporary nods to Trump and #MeToo, and the plethora of references begins to detract from the play’s very real trauma. It skirts dangerously close to using violence against women as set-dressing with the reputedly raped Jacinta (Humera Syed) from the untouchable caste, slumped silent in a corner during the soldiers’ scenes. Malik never seems to fully commit to the irredeemable cruelty of the inspector, his pantomimic villainy an uneasy balance with the onstage sexual violence.
There is a shift that occurs between Act I and Act II, when suddenly everything begins to make sense. De Angelis’ writing moves up a gear when it speaks of rebellion, with Jyoti’s rabble-rousing speech a breathtaking showstopper delivered with real power by Chalotra. Defiant, her head thrown back, she is transformed into an avenging Kali, tongue out and teeth bared. Joanna Scotcher’s design takes on a new life as the proscenium arch within an arch transforms in an explosion of light and colour invigorated by Polly Bennett’s vivid choreography. It’s something between a Holi parade and a riot.
Although its delivery is a little convoluted, The Village’s metaphor is clear. It’s a play about resistance and uprising, that oppressors can be toppled if those that are subjugated stick together and that the many can overthrow the few. Strong statements with which to reinvigorate a revolutionary theatre.