Behind the Beautiful Forevers review – important stories forcefully told

Olivier, London
David Hare’s adaptation of Katherine Boo’s acclaimed study of a Mumbai slum breaks new ground for the National

This is a glimpse into the future of the National Theatre. And a handshake with the past. Nicholas Hytner, in charge until April, programmed Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. Incoming chief Rufus Norris directs. David Hare, who has provided so much of the political spine of the theatre, adapts Katherine Boo’s revelatory 2012 study of a Mumbai slum.

It is a leap for the National. The setting is out of Great Britain; the cast is huge (more than 30 actors). The stories are important. The inhabitants of Annawadi have scarcely been heard before now. They live in the shadow of the airport, overlooked by luxury hotels: “The ash from our cow dung drifts into their swimming pools.” For them, the global recession means going back to eating rats. Education of an imperial kind is seized on and brilliantly dismembered. A teenage girl squats in the lavatory explaining Mrs Dalloway and The Way of the World to her friend: the themes are “love, social position and money”. Making a living from picking, sorting and selling the rubbish of the rich – ketchup packets, umbrellas, shoe laces – requires not only dexterity but high-grade ingenuity. Alan Sugar eat your heart out.

Katrina Lindsay’s design is a masterpiece of mess. Scrap is turned to advantage and the discarded takes centre stage. Cardboard boxes make up the walls of houses. Plastic bottles pelt on to the stage like manna. In the background – as if dangling from heaven – international airport signs are hung. From time to time the shadow of a great plane sweeps across the audience towards the stage.

Hare has adapted decisively, skilfully cutting a swath of narrative from a myriad competing tales. He concentrates on a number of matriarchs, all of whom have more in common with Mother Courage than Mother Teresa. The local “go to” woman fixes her daughter’s education by selling herself to a local police chief. A one-legged prostitute spars with a woman resented both for being a Muslim and for belonging to a family whose clever rubbish dealing has made them less poor than their neighbours. Stephanie Street, Thusitha Jayasundera and Meera Syal all shine in their parts. As do the teenage rubbish workers, Hiran Abeysekera and Shane Zaza, whose every handstand or slump bristles with individuality.

It would have been impossible to put all Boo’s intricacies on stage. Sensibly, though surprisingly for a political playwright, Hare has dispensed with some of the party political discussion, and there is a smudge of sentimentality in the ending which makes the drama less not more moving. Boo’s book is distinguished by being dry-eyed. She regards the difficulties of these lives as resulting not in the creation of victims but in the loss of talent and intelligence to the world outside their own. It is a point that is not made often enough in political accounts of inequity, and it could be made even more forcefully here. Still, it is made, and it is seen, and hurrah for that.


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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