Writers: Guleraana Mir and Afshan D’souza-Lodhi
Director: Madelaine Moore
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
And we’re off, the eight-week VAULT Festival has begun, and with hundreds of shows across multiple venues beneath Waterloo Station this remains the greatest showcase of new work in London. One of its earliest productions this year is already setting a standard for the rest, Santi and Naz, a two-hander about female friendship and childhood slowly affected by the undercurrents of Indian partition.
In the endless summers of the mid-1940s, two girls, Santi and Naz play and dance all day long. They talk of books, of boys, of learning and their future as married ladies in worlds that will never be. But reality intrudes inch by inch and when Muslim Naz is betrothed, political developments start to affect their relationship and an entire country is divided forever.
Guleraana Mir and Afshan D’souza-Lodhi’s show, although under an hour, has an intriguing slow-burn effect that for while misdirects the audience. As scene after scene showcases the mutual silliness, easy intimacy and minute dramas of teenage life, it seems that nothing is happening. Quite the contrary, and in fact Mir and D’souza-Lodhi are creating a richly detailed canvas on which the once muted effect of war and division eventually pulls the girls apart almost without them realising it.
Relying on just two creations to represent the historical, political and religious nuances of an entire nation is ambitious, but characterisation is one of Santi and Naz’s strongest elements, using the protagonists to impressionistically suggest the changes in their day-to-day lives while equally grounding them in that context, with hints at the social and cultural expectations of their communities that touches on arranged marriage, religious rites and festivals, dance and literature.
Mir and D’souza-Lodhi use different narrative techniques to create variation across their story, using a letter from an older Santi to her now absent friend as the frame in which to dramatically realise incidents which are then told in flashback. Both characters also relate a similar dream of drowning, a monologue that nods to the mystical elements of Indian culture as well as adding a tone of ominous foreboding as the sunny happiness of their earlier interactions is threatened by the impending creation of Pakistan.
Rose-Marie Christian as the intellectual Santi is a mature and calming figure, her education and correct expression is explored through discussions of language and vocabulary as she tries vainly to instil a love of learning in her friend. Christian’s more thoughtful Santi nonetheless enjoys dancing and gossiping that suggest a childlike wonder at the possibilities ahead, while later there is a sudden recognition of naivety about the extent of the political changes that Christian develops extremely well.
Ashna Rabheru’s Naz is far more excitable, care-free for much of the early part of the play and incredibly excitable. Yet, her character must undergo the biggest transition as engagement to a much older man, confused feelings for Santi and fear of being trapped crowd in on her as the time draws near. Rabheru suggests an empty headedness in Naz initially that morphs into a far more astute recognition of the forces parting her from her childhood and her friend.
By the end of the play, there is a sense that both Santi and Naz are only playing at being children, one last familiar act before everything changes. This was a complex time for India and while Mir and D’souza-Lodhi focus on the effects of partition on the individual, the backdrop of confusion, religious division and growing unrest are skilfully introduced. Proving a positive start to this year’s VAULT Festival, Santi and Naz deftly and subtly demonstrates how the personal and political future of these characters are deeply entwined.
Runs Until: 2 February 2020