Last week Sunday, a medium-size audience grabbed the opportunity provided by Palace Amusement Company to see - on screen at Palace Cineplex, Sovereign Centre - a play which is now running at London's Royal National Theatre.
Written by one of the UK's leading playwrights, David Hare, the play, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, asks a hard question: How can one be good in a corrupt world?
After seeing the play, which ran from roughly 11:30 a.m., to 2:30 p.m., the audience could have had a leisurely lunch in the food court downstairs and headed out to the Edna Manley College's School of Drama to see Furry Tales by Joel Doty at 4 p.m. In that play, too, the world has gone wrong, but the question asked is of a very different kind: Why are the tails of the animals in Fairy Land disappearing?
The answer to the first question is pessimistic: one can't be good in a corrupt world. The answer to the second question is optimistic: the tails (tales) of Fairy Land are disappearing because children have stopped reading story books, but with a bit of encouragement, they can start again.
Hare's screenplay is an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Katherine Boo, which she based on her three years of research in Annawadi, a slum community near India's Mumbai airport. The lives of its residents are not only nasty, brutish and short, but also irredeemably corrupt.
A lead character, the foul-mouthed Zehrunisa Husain (played with gusto by Meera Syal) provokes the jealousy and anger of her one-legged neighbour, Fatima Shaikh (Thusitha Jayasundera) by becoming relatively well-off when she gets her family into the garbage sorting/selling business. (Their dwelling place does remind one of Riverton City.)
To get the Husains in trouble, Fatima sets herself on fire and blames the Husains. Unfortunately for Fatima, corruption and neglect in the hospital to which she is taken lead to her death. Before she dies, though, young Abdul Husain, the best of the garbage sorters, is imprisoned in connection with the incident.
Zehrunisa goes from riches to rags when, to get Abdul out of prison, she is forced to sell practically all she has. Fortunately, Abdul manages to graduate from sorting garbage to transporting it in a small three-wheeler, but there is no time for the audience to rejoice with him. Minutes after he meets up with his friend, 12-year-old Sunil (Hiran Abeysekera, who has been badly beaten up by guards for stealing iron from a nearby hotel, the depressed Sunil commits suicide by jumping from a bridge.
That suicide is one of two by teenagers in the movie. The other is by a girl whose ambition to get an education is frustrated by her parents. Her friend's mother, Asha (Stephanie Street) has to interrupt a birthday party her family is putting on for her, to meet with a regular sex client, a police officer.
Though the story is depressing, the production is superb. The acting by the large cast of about 30 is utterly believable; the set by Katrina Lindsay conveys both the poverty of the area and the wealth of its environs - the airport and the hotels around it. And the director, Rufus Norris, who is also the new director of the National Theatre, moves both actors and set around for maximum emotional impact.
Hare has interpreted Boo's book as a tragedy, though, in an interview, Boo said that the outlook of the Annawadi residents was generally upbeat.
The animals in the Fairy Land of Furry Tales are certainly upset when they find that their tails have vanished, but they quickly begin searching for answers.
A group of them - Sir Mouse (Andre Tucker), Squirrel (Raquel Hutchinson) and Racoon (Tira-Kay Woodbine) - go to the home of the wise Mayor Owl (O'Neisha Heron) and she makes a phone call to the three-headed machine Trifocol (Kerri Ann Johnson). Trifocol says that because children are no longer reading story books, the animals are forgetting or mixing up their own stories.
A human child has to be brought back to Fairy Land to refresh the memories of the animals. Magically - with mysterious music and flashing lights - the animals are transported to a park with children and they capture the well-read Lila (Kaydian Ancel) with assistance from sleep-inducing fairy dust.
When Lila wakes in Fairy Land, surrounded by talking animals, she is not at all frightened, for she believes she is at a costume party. She soon learns the truth, however, and when she is told, "We need you to untangle our stories," she agrees to help.
Then follows meetings between Lila and a host of fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters - Jack (Rajeave Mattis), who has become involved with Rapunzel (Toni Ann Lalor) instead of Jill; Snow White (Monique Hill), Cinderella (Ashley Anderson), Witch Leisha Francis), the three bears, and others. This play is no tragedy and, of course, Lila untangles the fairy tales and the animals' tails return.
Director Pierre Lemaire gets energy, variety and a sense of enjoyment from the large cast, which, as costume designer, he dresses in nicely cartoonish costumes. Denise Forbes Erickson designs a colourful fairy storybook set, and Cecile Strudwick-Green's music is appropriately cheerful.
The final song, Ever After, suggests that as long as children will go to the library - that's the closing exhortation to the audience by the cast - everyone will live happily ever after. This is in direct contrast to the implication of the title, Behind the Beautiful Forevers; behind them, as the film shows, is the ugly present.