Apologies to the Bengali Lady
- Gareth K Vile
- 25 August 2019
A necessary reminder that racism is in theatre's history
Anya Banerjee's script recognises a hidden truth about Shakespeare, and by extension, western theatre: far from being an aesthetic and universal art, it has been used as a weapon in colonial expansion. The elegant poetry and moral profundity of the plays is presented to demonstrate the apparent cultural superiority of European culture, and, in the process, increased the oppression of the British Empire's subjects.
Banerjee brings a vivacity and passion to the protagonist, an academic examining the lives of the Bengali ladies who combined the role of actor and sex worker. The moral standards of Bengali society insisted that no respectable woman could take the stage – Banerjee points out that both the indigenous and colonial commentators made much of female purity, and the women who did perform Shakespeare – came from the most marginalised strata.
Banerjee's academic verbally jousts with Shakespeare – an unwelcome guest in her mind – before morphing into Tara Sundari, a successful nineteenth century actor and traces her experience through a relationship with a Scottish soldier (Clayton McInerney). The modest scenography belies the depth, intensity and scholarship of the script. There is plenty of information offered: Banerjee is introducing an ignored area of Shakespearean history, and the details are necessary to shape the landscape of the production.
Both performers inhabit their roles effectively, although McInerney veers a little in his Scottish accent, and refuses a simple resolution even as it covers serious questions of how theatre is entwined with colonial violence, and the specific oppression of women within both Bengali and British cultures. With enough characterisation to be a satisfying two-hander on a woman's existential crisis, it also performs an important challenge to the lazy acceptance of theatre as an unvarnished good.
Greenside @ Nicolson Square, until 24 Aug, 5.15pm, £8 (£5).