Saturday, May 9, 2009

Spicy blend of personas stirs the emotions

There’s something on the boil at the Market Theatre in the form of Curry Tales, a one-woman show written and performed by Rani Moorthy. Prior to seeing the show, I knew little about the production except that the actress cooks on stage. Sounded rather light and fluffy to me. Well, it is light, in the sense that there are laughs aplenty, but this is no mere parody of a cooking show.

Moorthy has fun with her audience, teasing and cajoling them in an intimate and yet also nonthreatening way. If you’re scared of interactive theatre after having been lampooned by the likes of Mark Banks, put your fear aside. Book a front-row seat, because, yes, Moorthy cooks and you’ll be one of the first to taste the dishes if you’re right up there.

In Curry Tales, Moorthy takes on a number of different personas, cooking up a dish to go with each. The dexterity and the feat of cooking while acting and taking cues from the audience is quite something to watch. “In any one-person show, the audience is the other character,” says Moorthy as I chat to her after having seen the show.

Now resident in London where she first conceived and wrote the show, Moorthy explains how she adapts performances to local mores in each country she plays in. Moorthy is something of a chameleon on stage. She first appears as socialite Mrs Dimple Melwani, a middle-aged New Delhi matriarch who commands the stage with her presence and sassy personality. Ah, this is an actress in her 40s, I thought, but, in the next scene, Moorthy bounds on to the stage as the fiery Trinidadian Rosemary, showing a leg, blasting the man (or men) in her life while stirring a hot curry to feed the audience, and I am reappraising, thinking, no, this is a much younger actress. Moorthy inhabits each character so thoroughly, which is obviously what good acting is about, that you are completely swept away and taken in.

You do chuckle throughout, but there is also an underlying pathos beneath each story. In another sequence, a young Indian woman, Kalvinder, is making curry for her British in-laws.Her husband has forgotten to pick up the mutton, so she is forced to improvise. She hits on the idea of using eggs instead of meat, but while she is chopping and boiling, she tells us about growing up as a barren woman. An Indian woman who cannot have children, reviled by her own mother. This achingly sad sequence goes to the very heart of what constitutes a woman in certain cultures, and how anything that is different from the norm is unacceptable. The heartache this causes in Kalvinder is painful to watch.

But equally moving is the beggar scene in which Moorthy plays a Tamil-speaking beggar, Kali. She doesn’t speak a word of English in this scene, and yet mime, gesture and our own natural human empathy mean we understand every word. The scene ends with the beggar sharing her bowl of curry with the audience. “She hasn’t eaten in two days,” Moorthy says as we discuss this scene, “and yet she gives of her bowl of food. “This just shows that the onus of giving is not one that only the rich can monopolise, it’s a sense of taking power from the act of giving.”

Another powerful scene is that of Mrs Wong, an Indian woman brought up in China and now living in riot-torn Malaysia. She’s chained to her stove by her eldest son, lamenting the fact that she hasn’t learned the words to the national anthem, and recalling a life shaped by emigration. Moorthy is Mrs Wong with a very passable Chinese-inflected accent. Here Moorthy taps directly into her past experiences. Born in Malaysia, she was educated in Singapore, as her parents wanted her to be taught in English. This meant she carried a passport to school every day. Moorthy became a drama lecturer and also hosted a talk show in Singapore. Marrying Briton Arthur Smith meant negotiating a commuter relationship. Deciding to move to England to be with her husband in 1996 at the age of 35 meant starting all over again.

She talks of finding a new voice. “Yet, I think it’s important for artists to leave the artistic homeland, to leave the comfort zone. I didn’t think I would have an audience in Britain.”

Instead, Moorthy had to create another career, cultivate another voice. From this was born a series of plays, including Pooja, which explored ritual in a Hindu woman’s life, Curry Tales, and Shades of Brown, another one-woman show that looks at skin colour and the effect of being perceived as too dark or too light (as in the character of the South African albino). “I invite the audience to look at the discomfort around skin colour, and how we are being prejudiced [by perceptions].”

It’s not a topic that is always openly discussed and Moorthy relates how her own darker skin colour led her family to joke with her not to go out into the sun: the psychological impact of colour. Moorthy has also explored the impact of the Muslim bombings in London in Too Close to Home, a play set in a British Muslim family.

Future projects in the pipeline include further explorations of emigration in writing about gangs of Tamil boys in London who feel disenfranchised in the West as well as a play that looks at feminine energies and what happens when people are taken away from the country of their birth.

Moorthy admits that she is sceptical about nationhood, but “I find it liberating that I am not particularly of any one culture. I can borrow from cultures, telling stories that are human, that people can return too.”

(Published in The Sunday Independent Feb 2008)

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