Wire, Briar, Limber Lock, Three Cultures in the Dock*
The Bollywood Trip
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, UK; December 13, 2011
If asked to name two cultures that are as far apart as possible, one could do worse than conjure Denmark and India. Britain's much-touted multi-culturalism has been engendered by an extensive imperial past, but Denmark, like its neighbouring countries, has been much more isolated historically, at least in latter times.
Recent incidences have made the world aware of some of the pains of social and cultural integration within the Nordic countries. What is surprising is that it makes really entertaining theatre, at least as far as the Bollywood Trip is concerned.
Choreographer Gauri Sharma Tripathi claims that the work is based on Dale Wasserman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"; there is certainly more than a passing resemblance, but there are as many differences too as the cultures of Denmark, India and the treatment of mental illness come under scrutiny. Oh yes - complete with Bollywood choreography.
Sounds unlikely, but writer Parminder Singh and team have pulled off a corker of a work. It is a pity that designer Sisse Gerd Jorgensen is not given more credit in the programme for this is a set that is a character in itself. A flat with a conventional door is equipped with sliding screens with opaque windows, at one point used brilliantly as a surface for projection that enables the character Haroon/Tomas to "climb" up the set. The remainder of the set is dominated by a scooping slope that sweeps down to centre stage and traps everyone within the mental hospital (or their own lives). All the performers were very comfortable with the set, scrambling up, sliding down, grasping and skidding to illustrate their inner conflicts. Thomas Corneliussen's brilliant psychiatrist Jens suddenly appears to be sliding sideways, effortlessly as he bangs his head against the brick wall of his relationship with his superior until it becomes apparent that a small revolve is set into the rostrum on which the set is based.
Undoubtedly the performance of the evening is achieved by Miles, the Harding-like character who is able to go home on day release, even though this is frequently referred to as a closed institution. It is a detailed study of mental illness that never degenerates into caricature and is made all the more stunning by Miles' transformation at the end.
The central protagonist is Haroon/Tomas who is introduced as a Bollywood star with a Danish passport who has been deported to the asylum after an attempt at self-immolation. His fantasies of Bollywood play on the whole concept of fantasy and romance that is central to the genre, but obviously, all is not as it appears. Whilst the work questions the validity of therapeutic practices, it is as much an inditement of power and bureaucracy and, unlike "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", it is the staff as much as the inmates who carry the story forward. There is no attempt to come to pat conclusions but questions are raised about cultural identity, corruption and the effectiveness of mental health practices.
"The Bollywood Trip" is a true ensemble piece, with all of the cast dancing competently when required so to do and Bollywood choreography is hijacked to include dancers in clinical baths and straight jackets without appearing in the slightest bit ridiculous, or at least any more so than in a traditional Bollywood film. It is also very witty, with each character so well drawn as to be immediately engaging, even if they are not necessarily likeable.
The only downside to the evening was the poor sound quality: performers were vastly over-amplified to the point that dialogue was distorted and the live musicians rendered rather pointless.
This is a work that deserves wider exposure than given by a relatively short run, although it probably needs a fairly intimate setting to be at its most effective. If nothing else, let us hope that it puts Danish theatre on the map.
*Wire, briar, limber, lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew east
One flew west
One flew over the cuckoo's nest