Having just returned from India, I can say with some authority that the National has got this as close to real life as is reasonably possible – the noise, the mayhem, the rubbish piled high in the streets and, putting a cherry on top of the cake, the appearance on stage of a real tuk tuk. Only the roaming animals are missing from a spectacular set which makes full use of what could be the best-equipped stage anywhere; complex scene changes may perhaps excuse two set failures (one stopping the show) at this performance, but, as can only happen at the National, an army of technicians appears in a flash to save the day. So does the play justify the lavish outlay? On this occasion, emphatically yes. Any new play by David Hare is bound to gain attention, but this adaptation of Katherine Boo’s factual account of existence in a modern day Mumbai slum links human drama to epic themes and must rate as his best work for the theatre in many years. The drama centres on the Husain family, Moslems residing in a slum home on the perimeter of Mumbai airport, who have risen above the rest by making money from collecting, sorting and selling rubbish. This is largely due to the efforts of Abdul, a talented but uneducated youngster, and his mother Zehrunisa (Meera Syal). A petty tiff with a neighbour, a one-legged prostitute, sets off a chain of events which drags the family into a seemingly inescapable web spun by self-serving officialdom and multi-layered corruption. The backdrop is the meeting of the third world and the first, where luxuries are within sight but not quite attainable, homes are being demolished to make way for airport expansion and everything is up for grabs using whatever means are available. Gleaming new developments are promoted by smiling faces on posters proclaiming “Beautiful forever”, but little thought is given to the lives going on behind the billboards. The struggles and confusions of transition are demonstrated in another family in which a mother demeans herself to provide her daughter with a “Western” education which includes Virginia Woolf and Congreve in a syllabus of little practical relevance to her own life. Often stark and brutal, all this is brought to vibrant life by an array of fine performances in Rufus Norris’s thrilling and colourful production. In particular, Shane Zaza is outstanding as Abdul, a figure of calm and human dignity who withstands all the ordeals that confront him, seeing that there is a way forward by upholding the core values of honesty and decency. Abdul represents Hare’s hope for the future of India and, if this production is a taster of things to come, the future of the National Theatre after Norris takes over as Director in April 2015 looks very bright too.
Performance date: 12 December 2014