TAPAC Theatre, Western Springs, Auckland

08/10/2015 - 18/10/2015

Production Details


Beloved Prayas Theatre Company offer up an enduring tale of the human spirit in an inhuman state for their 10th year anniversary extravaganza when Rohinton Mistry’sA Fine Balance goes from page to stage at TAPAC from the 8th – 18th October.

“What begins as a result of economic necessity eventually becomes an arrangement between friends, each of whom has a demon with which to wrestle. Dina must conquer her fear of losing her rent-controlled flat to help Ishvar and Om who in their turn must cope with the destruction wrought on their family as a result of stepping outside the caste system. When Ishvar and Om are caught up, not once but twice, in the government’s cruelly administered policies their unlikely family is first threatened, then torn apart.”

In their annual spectacular, Prayas bring over 20 cast members to stage in an explosive take on this highly acclaimed best seller. A Fine Balance transports the audience back in time to 1970s India to explore the effects of the state of emergency rule on the lives of ordinary people. Four strangers—a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, two tailors who have fled the caste violence in their native village and a spirited widow, are thrusted together, forced to share one cramped apartment as they move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of emergency rule in India. The superb novel-turned-production captures the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism of India in 1975 with a compassionate realism and Dickens-inspired narrative. A Fine Balance brings the depth and fascination of Mistry’s work to New Zealand audiences through a cast of vividly drawn characters with humanity and a great wit.

Director Ahi Karunaharan is inspired by the light of the kindness, compassion and benevolence that shines through this beloved novel. A Fine Balance is an exploration of polar-opposite people in various socioeconomic levels forced to fight against the rapidly changing world they have become trapped in.

The music is authentically percussion driven, presented with objects found in the slums to replace instruments. Tins, bottles, water and paper are creatively used alongside the body movements of the cast to bring an atmospheric experience resembling Strike, Percussion or Stomp.

8th – 18th October
TAPAC, 100, Motions Road, Western Springs
Tickets: General $25.00*; Concession /Group of 6+ $20.00* (*booking fees apply)
Bookings through TAPAC – www.tapac.org.nz or 09 845 0295 ext 2
R16 Adult Theme, Coarse Language 

Theatre ,

Horror, humour, wit and compassion

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 10th Oct 2015

Prayas Theatre has built an exceptional reputation over the years in Auckland, a reputation that is significantly enhanced by A Fine Balance, their celebratory 10th anniversary production. The programme cover describes the work as “a panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state” and the production certainly delivers on this promise. 

A Fine Balance, the second novel by Canadian author Rohinton Mistry, was published in 1996 and has been thrice shortlisted for the Booker Prize so it’s no mean work. The fact that it has received 89,154 ratings and 6,118 reviews on the Goodreads website speaks for itself. 

Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith of London’s Tamasha Theatre, specialists in contemporary, Asian-influenced British drama, accepted the challenge of adapting Mistry’s sprawling epic for the stage. Their adaptation played a season at the Hampstead Theatre in 2006 and was successfully revived in 2007. Rosie Millard in the New Statesman described the revival as “breathtaking”, Rivka Jacobson in the British Theatre Guide spoke of “a powerful production, finely balanced between drama and storytelling” and Lyn Gardner in The Guardian of 14 April 2007 assures her audience that the production “provides a vivid history lesson.”

Each is also true of this current Prayas iteration, as is Michael Billington’s assessment of the original 2006 airing as published in The Guardian on 17 January 2006. He describes it as being “like watching a filleted version of a whale of a book” and this is, of course, somewhat a statement of the obvious. Mistry’s book, after all, is around 800 pages long and has the benefit of detailed narrative and the profound knowledge that the reader’s imagination needs no tangible manifestation.

Bhuchar and Landon-Smith are credited with authorship but the text has all the hallmarks of a cast-devised work and therein lies both its charm and its effectiveness. It is character and narrative-driven and the director, creatives, and musicians are left to provide the over-arching political schema which, in this Prayas production, is superbly managed.

A Fine Balance tracks the vicissitudes of Indian society from the end of the British Raj to the beginning of Independence in 1947, through Prime Minister Indira Ghandi’s declaration, under controversial circumstances, of the 1974 to 1977 Emergency, “the security of India having been declared threatened by internal disturbances” and subsequently through to 1984 when Ghandi herself was assassinated by two of her trusted Sikh guards. Mistry balances the magnificence of his canvas with the diversity of his characters and the detailed richness of his text and this, transposed into performance vocabulary, adds immeasurably to the abundance of this production.

Underpinning the narratives – historical and personal – are the lives of three men and one woman from widely diverse backgrounds. Central to the story is Dina (Leela Patel), a widow from a wealthy Parsi family who, by taking an apartment of her own and starting a sewing business, has avoided becoming locked into a tradition that says she should live with and be dependent on her brother. To satisfy outstanding dressmaking orders she takes on two tailors, an uncle, Shvar (Mustaq Missouri), and his nephew Om (Prateek Vadgaonkar), who hail from a rural village and are of a caste considered to be untouchable. There are initial tensions but the arrival of Dina’s nephew Maneck (Mayen Mehta) who is also to live in the apartment establishes a bond that remains almost to the end of the tale. The acting of this quartet is uniformly impressive with Patel as Dina quite outstanding

Unavoidably embedded as they are in one of the most violent and volatile political situations in history, the likelihood that any of the thirty or so characters who inhabit this world will even come out alive is moot but it seemingly does nothing to inhibit their aspirations nor dampen their desire to better themselves. Ultimately the savagery of the world they live in defeats them but the resonances of their lives permeate our world and we leave the theatre with a sense of optimism and hope.

The caste system is omnipresent but there is a sense of its imminent breakdown. Many of the character’s more endearing idiosyncrasies are embedded in their social class and the horrors of the narrative also generate from this. Forced vasectomy, castration, assault, murder and the extreme dehumanising nature of the Emergency all conspire to destroy these fragile lives but somehow there is always self-belief and determination. 

There are many memorable performances, not all of them major roles, but all created with great integrity and exceptional craft. Action playing is woven cleverly with the text and ensures the narrative never falters though the second half of the two hour performance is more immediate than the first. The set-ups happen before the interval and the narrative pay-offs come thick and fast after the break. You’ll need to focus thoroughly though because the accents used are uncompromising but your concentration will pay wonderful benefits so it’s well worth the effort.

Shankar (the delicious Aamir Kapasi) is disabled and pushes himself around on a trolley. He’s witty, charming, and persuasive but he’s still a beggar, one of many. Protection is provided to Shankar, Dina, Shvar and Om by the Beggar Master (an impressive Raj Singh) who also ensures that Dina’s landlord doesn’t evict her for running a business from a domestic property. Whilst he’s a shady character and allegedly violent, his innate humanity supports the essence of the work. He chooses compassion wherever possible and takes his role of protector deadly seriously. Singh makes great choices, uses his physicality to great effect, and is perfect in the role. 

Two of the key characters in the piece are played by well manipulated, full sized puppets: a small girl who is horribly tortured on a spinning wheel and a skinny slum dog. Each adds a slightly surreal dimension that links these vignettes effectively with a series of highly choreographed and stylised crowd scenes that heighten the sense of political chaos and spectacle that is necessary to give real credibility to such an epic work.

Significant praise must go to director Ahi Karunaharan for both his vision and skill in pulling together the disparate parts of this whole. It’s a hugely ambitious work with so much that could have gone belly-up and it’s to his credit that absolutely nothing does. It’s beautifully rehearsed and the result is a production that achieves everything it sets out to.

A Fine Balance takes place on the full width of the TAPAC stage on a set (the brilliant Sean Hurst) as expansive as the narrative itself. In pride of place, centre back, there is a massive portrait of Prime Minister Indira Ghandi; on either side stand expansive walls of pasted colour posters; to the right a curved staircase and to the left, two elderly – and evocative – Singer sewing machines. It’s a tour de force and when you add Michael Craven’s sublime lighting – no-one outside the dance community uses side lighting even half as well – you have a theatrical environment that’s perfect to introduce this marvellously integrated production into. Add to this Padma Akula’s deeply authentic costumes and you have visuals that are quite simply exceptional.  

As if this wasn’t enough, the live music is both wildly imaginative and deeply truthful. It opens the show, is woven beautifully throughout and plays us out at the end. It’s played by Ritesh Vahgela, who designed it all, and Marie Sarasvati Wills, Dhruv Mody and Karen Plimmer, who play the extraordinary range of instruments with serious aplomb. There are drums made of cans and pots and jugs, there’s a harp and a recorder, and together they create a soundscape that’s interacts with the text and the visuals to create an experience that is memorable in the extreme. 

The text is worth mentioning too. There are wonderful lines: Shankar the trolley-bound cripple says, “From my throne I see everything”; Om and Shvar, “We’re so afraid of the outside”; then there’s the querulous, “What evil person would kill poor beggars?”; the profound, “How life can change in one day” and finally a reflective “looks like I need a refresher course in solitude”. Having a rich text is exceptionally important but so is what you do with it, and these actors handle it all with intelligence and integrity.

A Fine Balance is a fine play but it’s not an easy watch all of the time. It doesn’t pull its punches. There are moments of breath-taking horror. But there are also moments of dry humour, wit and compassion, and it’s compassion that wins in the end.

It’s the perfect choice for Prayas’ 10th anniversary production and we in The City of Sails should be proud to have a theatre company prepared to create big works with universal themes that come from the sub-continent. Cast and crew can be rightly proud of their achievement. They haven’t backed off any aspect of Mistry’s fantastic book and we, their audience, are the beneficiaries.

Namaste, Prayas. Namaste.  


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