Behind the Beautiful Forevers is David Hare’s theatrical rewrite of the book of the same name by Katherine Boo. It is set in the Annawadi slum by Mumbai Airport: an area of immense poverty where money is made through the junk thrown away by the far wealthier tourists and residents of an ever-modernising Mumbai; “Rich people don’t know what they’ve got, and they don’t know what they throw away,”
The production is visually quite incredible with an ever changing set that captures the transient nature of any settlement in a slum constantly in fear of being bulldozed. Rubbish is strewn across the set, but never for very long as the litter pickers of Annawadi are quick to clear any possible value into their sacks. A particular highlight for me was a moment where a ton of plastic rubbish is dropped down onto the stage from the ceiling, filling the space: life goes on, there is always more rubbish.
Based on real life events, and often using verbatim accounts, there are a lot of stories to tell and indeed the first 25 minutes feels chaotic in its account – there is so much going on, it’s hard to know who to focus on. But of course that’s the nature and challenge of staging a journalistic document – the stories are real so they are not neat.
However once the story began to focus on the Husain family, in particular Abdul (Shane Zaza) – a hard working teenager who is the greatest sorter in the area and the main provider for his family who are determined to better themselves, I was completely swept in. Abdul tries to do good, to work hard, to keep his head down and believes that he will make his future through honest work. His family, of which Meera Syal is a brilliantly sweary matriarch. fall victim to a jealous neighbour who tries to kill herself, implicating the family in the process and causing them to be swept into the utterly corrupt legal system The moment when Abdul stands up to a government official demanding more money to make the trail disappear is particularly moving and a real highlight of the piece.
The cast worked hard to create the sense of bustling, buzzing, slum life but I never quite managed to suspend my disbelief – I was still aware that I was watching a representation of something that could only really be captured by adding another thousand actors, in as small a space, and really hearing and smelling the environment. However the production was moving without being sentimental, vibrant without being the exotic India that films love to portray and immensely captivating.
Katherine Boo immersed herself in the world of the slum to write the book, and was even hesitant when the suggestions to stage it were first raised. There have been flutters in the press around the idea of poverty porn and the ethics of staging of stories of real people that are struggling however I’d agree with Katherine’s interview with the Telegraph where she talks about the need for representation – through any medium – in order to raise awareness.
I watched on an NT Live night where the play was broadcast to hundreds of cinemas across the UK, which meant we were also able to watch an interview with Rufus Norris, a sneak preview of the film London Road (oh it looks so so good I CANNOT wait to see it), and a short film about the making of Behind the Beautiful Forevers in which Meera Syal talked about how important it was that the National Theatre represented the make-up of our nation – indeed it was incredible to watch not only a cast entirely made up of asian actors, but also to have three very strong female roles at the forefront.