Writer: Satinder Chohan
Director: Helena Bell
Composer and Sound Designer: Arun Ghosh
Reviewer: Michael Gray
This new piece by Satinder Chohan, developed last year in Bracknell, premiered this week in Colchester before touring, explores themes of identity, rivalry and betrayal, using the fast-moving and unbelievably physical Indian game as a central dramatic metaphor. Though it’s a real sport now, we’re told – “betting, steroids, match fixing” it’s not includled in the London Olympics.
The first act unfolds in Stratford, scaffolding in a corner of the Olympic park. Shera is a wide-boy, British Indian, skilled at wheeling and dealing, and making money. Some of it by offering a shed and a job to “freshies” newly arrived in the UK from their Punjabi villages, fresh off the boat or the lorry.
One such is Eshwar, his muscle memory fading fast, reluctant to play for Club UK. Another is Azadeh, a frightened fugitive in a white shalwar kameez, her first entrance powerfully suggesting her palpable paranoia. She longs to return home, the price of her papers, Eshwar’s joining the British team.
All three players have a past. Shera has dug up his great-grandfather’s gold medal from the 1936 Berlin Games. Eshwar has only a posthumous medal awarded by the Crown to his Sepoy ancestor.
There’s a crucial timeslip moment, and after the interval we’re back in the Punjab in 1936, the flags of all nations replaced by ragged home-made pennants.
Fauji (Khan) wears the “threads of Empire” (shorts made in Manchester) and eventually takes the King’s shilling. Pavan (Chani) cheats his way to Berlin and a gold medal, and longs for Azadeh to convert so that they may marry. She’s a freedom fighter, a “nationalist heroine”, ready with her suicide bomb and her Communist ideals. She breathlessly, beautifully gives a commentary on the Indian victory over the Germans in the hockey final, but, reluctantly, accepts the gift of a swastika that Pavan brings back.
The three actors give impressive, compelling performances in this small, warm space. Pushpinder Chani is a charismatic Shera, Asif Khan a vulnerable, stobborn Eshwar. And Shalini Peiris doubles superby as the two Azadehs, both strong in their way, both able to see beyond the here and now.
Helena Bell’s production, evocatively lit by Mark Dymock, with a haunting soundtrack by Arun Ghosh, magnificently manages the blend of sport and war, raiders and defenders fighting it out over a chapati-flour frontier in the Akhara, as the ghosts swirl up in dreams of red dust.