Sharmila Chauhan’s new play at the Soho Theatre takes place in an imagined rural community in 21st Century India, where a once arid area of land has been turned into a kind of farming paradise by a seeming adherence to traditional farming methods, and their accompanying culture.
The matriarch of this community is Aya, a woman at the helm of a kind of cult of womanhood, where it is the women, not the men, who have multiple spouses, and female children are venerated to the same extent that they are despaired over in broader India – where we are repeatedly told that girls are left to die on birth because of the expense of raising them.
Aya has two husbands, and plans to take a third. Her first husband, Sem, is loving and uncomfortable; his fervour for their way of life, his unreciprocated desire for Aya, and the confusion that springs from these seeming contradictions are ably displayed by [actor]. He whirrs around the stage, a dervish of emotional support battling to suppress his own needs and desires to the collective. Her second husband, Omar, is Aya’s true love. [actor] is a mountain of a man, with an unending store of grace and melancholy. His performance is superlative in its love and bewilderment at how his wife can seek another husband. He is the quiet heart of the piece, a man who has given up the outside world for love, but cannot reconcile his understanding of love to the rules of the alternate order he has placed himself within.
Aya’s impending marriage to her third husband stirs the emotions in her household, an impressively depicted rural Indian living space in the top floor of Soho Theatre, delicately lit, screened and tiled, and filled throughout the piece with the ingredients, implements and ,most wonderfully, scents of cooking. The play takes part across a graceful inversion of domestic roles, as the two husbands prepare a large meal for the festival day and the impending nuptials. They gently explore their relationship, which carries its inequalities, but it broadly satisfactory, and each shares an individual scene with Aya, and then a third man enters, and breaks down all their preconceptions of their life.
Despite occasional moments of clunkily aphoristic dialogue and one or two insufficiently signalled segue ways this is an impressively taut piece of drama. Aya’s third marriage is not for love but for land, as she seeks to expand the reach of Shakktipur, the idealist community which she heads, but it becomes apparent that in order to go through with the marriage she must break the fundamental precepts of the community. The play carries an overlying theme of jealousy, but is at its core about the way in which a woman’s rights are not her own, however they are framed.
Aya is performed as a deeply conflicted woman; a devoted wife, a caring and responsible leader, but also a pragmatist, a selfish disregarder of the teachings she preaches, and an individual with her own hopes and dreams. The piece is left carefully open-ended, and is neither too pessimistic or optimistic at its conclusion. The two husbands are as close and devoted to each other as brothers; it seems that they could forgive each other anything – but the play asks: could they do the same for a woman? Perhaps, or perhaps not.