A pair of brothers and their wives, a shared home with a kitchen that needs renovating – the domestic stage: comfortable, claustrophobic. Emma Jesse’s set surrounds the couples with staples of normality – carpets and potted plants, mugs, lamps, soothing mementos and framed family photos – but the blackness of the stage shows through. With powerfully subtle symbolism, Ayndrilla Singharay reimagines Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Punishment’ in modern-day London, illustrating the precariousness of family stability, and how quickly love can become possessive, oppressive, and dangerous.
Married one year ago, Ash and Joy dance and romance like the world’s at their feet. Ash’s older brother Rana and his wife Megh bicker and complain. Londoner Joy’s shorter western dress and carefree naivety contrasts with Megh’s gravitas, her Indian accent and demure traditional sari. But it’s the brothers who seem different as night and day. Ash has the good-tempered easy charm of the fortunate and self-assured, while Rana’s bravado thinly veils frustration, insecurity and paranoia. With compliments like ‘what an efficient wife you have’, we learn that relentless misogyny is to be expected from Rana. But when Joy writes him off as ‘just an idiot’ and patronisingly reassures Megh that times have changed, her sombre sister-in-law warns her to be careful – that her husband was like Ash once, and that these modern times are not what they seem (‘It’s a trick…Your birth still determines your worth.’)
Singharay explores attitudes toward Indian heritage, with characters preoccupied by the loss of nurturing parental guides and Rana’s views of inferiority shaped by racism. And we see the destructiveness of masculine honour codes which reduce the wife to a dangerously mobile extension her husband, a vulnerable locus for his debasement (‘A family’s reputation lies in its women.’). But Singharay does much more, using conventional formulae to challenge conventional conceptions of domestic violence.
Defying stereotypes of the bullied wife as brainwashed doll or passive victim, Megh challenges the men’s idealisation of their mother: ‘Everyone has secrets. You don’t want to think about it because it changes your idea of her.’ And, just as Megh asserts, no character here is wholly predictable. It’s feisty, ambitious Joy who tells her husband, ‘I’ll do anything to keep that smile on your face.’ And for all of his detestable cruelty, Rana is no straightforward Iago or caricatured villain. Most troubling is the recognition that he is a suffering human too, who does care. Sometimes. Instead of happy home life as consistently forced and consciously faked, we see tender moments where smiles and laughs are genuine, loving words sincere. An understanding unity, albeit short-lived, falls over the group when Ash and Rana share a treasured memory of their mother with their wives. Romantic, sisterly, or fraternal – there is love in this house. ‘We are not broken.’
Director Lucy Allan skilfully weaves scenes together with restless time-lapse movement, an eclectic soundtrack that evokes multiplicity and flux, staging that reinforces the theme of constant surveillance. As in Othello, complacent optimism and toxic resentments point to inevitable doom, and, with predictably misleading discoveries of ‘ocular proof’, this can be frustrating to watch. But there’s great momentum, and the cast performs with a chemistry that feels real and unnervingly relatable. Early declarations of love may seem saccharine, but the scene where Ash and Joy overcome self-consciousness to dance together is beautifully unaffected, as is Rana and Megh’s anguished discussion of their marriage. Avita’s Jay’s Joy is as likeable as Rez Kabir’s Rana is reprehensible, but both convincingly display mental states ranging from passionate to numb. Niall Ray brings Ash’s inner conflict to the surface with compelling subtlety, revealing his insecurity and sense of betrayal with a wince, imploring stare or pained smile. And Nadia Nadif has a magnetic stage presence as dignified, enigmatic Megh. Dialogue can be profound and proverbial, but never pretentious. Influences from Bollywood and British comedy are fused seamlessly. And the play’s unique climax leaves a more distressing impression than a clichéd explosion ever could.
Love in ‘Unsung’ is entangled with risk and shame – the desire to possess and be possessed working at odds with hopes for relief and release. We see family bonds and incarceration, reminding us that for some women ‘home’ is an ornately furnished cell. We may dismiss Rana’s ‘harmless’ laddish jokes, insults, and delusional tantrums – like Ash’s unfounded fear of bees – as comically infantile quirks in grown men. But, as grown men, their insecurities have real, and tragic, consequences. There is redemption though, in the strength and protest of the women. Breaking, maybe, ‘not broken’.