Whose Sari Now? by the Manchester theatre company Rasa Productions Ltd is a moving, at times very funny, but on the whole very profound and emotionally charged performance. It refers to the history of the most iconic piece of Indian clothing, yet it is very current because of constant associations with modern life: from selling stuff on ebay to life in war-torn zones. It touches upon the themes of life and death in the modern world and the diversity and fragility of human life. The theme of the sari becomes just a pretext for bringing to life on stage touching stories of real people wearing it.
The action begins before the actual start of the show. Rani Moorthy, the author of the play and the actress who performs all the characters in it, stretches out her various saris at the different corners of the stage as she greets the audience while they enter the auditorium, as if they were coming to her home. “You look lonely”, Rani Moorthy tells a woman next to me while gently touching her hand, “did you come on your own? I will look after you”.
The actress creates a trusting relationship with the spectators by charming them with her sharp sense of humour and warm personality. She can easily reach out to everyone in the audience, as there is no stage in the traditional meaning of the word. The action takes place on a two metres-wide empty space between two sets of rows of chairs facing each other, on which the audience is seated. People become part of the stage space, just like the saris around them, and at times they are also transformed into characters in the performance, when Rani Moorthy asks one of them to try her sari on or flirts with another.
We witness fragments from the lives of various people, for example an old lady whose saris are her skin… She has a different one for every occasion – for weddings, for funerals, for shopping at Marks and Spencer… Rani Moorthy lovingly pulls the pieces of fabric from her shopping trolley and talks to us as if we were her old friends. The distance between the actress and the audience is so small that we look straight into the actress’s eyes, as her character recalls her past, and we also look at each other, as we reflect on our own lives. The actress brings a great deal of humour and improvisation into her performance in her interaction with the audience. She refers to the man whom she wraps in a sari as David Beckham, and when he refuses to keep the sari that she has offered him, she quietly sighs to the rest of the audience: “Oh… rejection”, sending them into fits of laughter.
A few moments later she is transformed into a transgender man, who describes the challenges that he faces in life in an almost painfully candid monologue. While questioning gods about his position in this world, he finds rhythm and rhyme in his life, as he transforms his pain and despair into poetry, and the sari becomes a powerful tool for him in his quest for his true identity.
Rani Moorthy and the director Kimberley Sykes disarm the audience with the emotional twists and turns that occur in the production. One moment they make us laugh and next they throw in footage from a documentary, No War Zone (2013) by Callum MaCrae, in which we can see real people in Sri Lanka mourning their relatives who have just been murdered. Surrounded by the sounds and images of war, the actress portrays a young woman giving birth on her own in a field. In this emotional scene the sari becomes the true fabric of life, as the actress creates her twin babies with it. She talks to them about their father, who expects them, and about her hopes for their future wonderful life in Canada… And then a man in the documentary talks about witnessing the death of a young woman and we realise that Canada never happened for them.
The performance creates a rollercoaster of emotions for the audience, who in eighty minutes learn a great deal about an unfamiliar culture and its people. At one point in the show one of the characters whom Rani Moorthy performs is requested by her boss to dress a mannequin in a sari, and this creates a metaphor for all the preconceptions regarding her culture which the actress so skillfully destroys throughout the show.
It is a very intense production, which employs a very simple yet powerful theatrical language. The bare stage and the actress looking into the eyes of her viewers are essential theatrical tools used by great directors such as Peter Brook. Following in his footsteps, the actress demonstrates the triumph of pure theatricality, when she performs a character who speaks only Tamil. Most of audience do not understand a word that she is saying, although they can see subtitles on the wall, but the acting does not need any translation and the actress makes us laugh just through her expressions and reactions to our inability to understand her.
At the end of the show she closes the circle by going back to the character whom we saw in the very beginning – an elderly woman. We now learn that she “hasn’t got long to go” and her son is cheering her up by selling pictures of her in her saris on ebay.
She does not tell us what sort of a sari is for funerals – we can see what it looks like. Dressed in a white sari and preparing to face her gods, she once again recalls what has tormented her all these years: the little girl in a white dress with cherries printed on it… If only she could have reached her then… The actress does not have to describe to us what she failed to prevent. The strong image of a lonely little girl playing on the side of a busy road, waiting for a tragedy to happen, becomes a metaphor for all the mistakes for which we cannot forgive ourselves and brings tears to the eyes of the audience.
Whose Sari Now? is one of the rare shows that engage people throughout by means of pure acting. I can certainly recommend it.