To write a play about a clash between two cultures is to walk the narrow line between revelation and cliché, between illustrating truths about the wider world and making unsubtle remarks about differences in food, dress and, in the case of writer-director Xenia Elsaesser’s new play This is India, sanitary products. Indeed, in a play which could be summed up as ‘a British gap-year student goes to India’, the danger of cliché is particularly rife. But This is India is far more sophisticated than this.
Opening with what Elsaesser pertinently describes as a ‘(stereo)typical scene’ of Indian domestic life, we see a woman washing clothes while a voiceover promotes volunteering in India, immediately leaving the audience uncertain about how far we are seeing a deliberate illusion about Indian life. This (un)conscious stereotyping is at the heart of the plot, as a gap-year project to ‘help’ a disadvantaged country is soon revealed as nothing more than a quest to impose British cultural ideals on a ‘fascinating’ but needy part of the world.
Although friendship develops between British student Sara (Abigail Dewhurst) and her Indian cousin Radha (Farha Quadri), they find themselves irreconcilably divided as each refuses to question their own cultural ideals, finally provoking Sara to declare: ‘I don’t understand any of this anymore, and I don’t want to!’
Yet this is more than a saga about the dangers of ignorant cultural tourism, as it examines the universal reluctance to call into question an accepted way of life, as her Indian hosts keep Sara at home, refusing to allow her to work during her ‘year-long holiday’.
The close attention to detail in the setting of the Indian family home and the strong performances by Quadri and her on-stage mother, Rosie Batty, create a realism which is compelling to watch, if occasionally at odds with the symbolic use of dance and lighting and the script’s tendency to drift into implausible metaphors. This aside, This is India remains a powerful and humane re-examination of not only cultural stereotyping, but the shared reluctance to find flaws in the cultural restraints we impose upon ourselves.
three stars out of five
This is India will be on at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre in 4th Week, Tuesday-Saturday.