Fighting the fight

Rating: 3


by Ian Shuttleworth

A few months ago, I reviewed a musical about Joan Littlewood, who in the 1950s and 1960s revolutionised popular theatre in Stratford in East London. Now her former base, the Theatre Royal Stratford East, has had a refurbishment and change of artistic director. The Village is Nadia Fall’s first production since taking up the reins here.

Fall is determined that Stratford East should carry on connecting with its local community (it’s in Newham, which is the most ethnically diverse borough in the Uk), but also recognises that that community is changing, what with post-Olympic yuppification, the Westfield Shopping Centre and all. It’s a tough circle to square, but Fall has got off to an interesting start... and I don’t mean that as a euphemism. The theatre no longer feels, well, like an exotic destination for readers of this august publication. And Fall has programmed an eclectic season, kicking off with an adaptation of a classic drama from the Spanish Golden age.

Fuenteovejuna (1613-ish) by Lope de Vega tells of a village whose people, tormented by a brutal military commander, banded together and killed him. Even under torture, they all (as you might say) pulled a Spartacus and said only, ‘Fuenteovejuna did it.’ There was no choice but to pardon them.

Lope’s play was based on a true story, so adapter Aapril de Angelis has plugged it into contemporary reality. In her version, Tthe Village, Fuenteovejuna in Andalucia becomes Sahaspur in Uttar Pradesh; the military commander becomes a police inspector who supports the sectarian BJP party. He and his minions exact tribute from the village, beat up anyone who looks at them the wrong way and rape whomever they fancy... even, despite her defiant resistance, the mayor’s daughter, 16-year-old Jyoti, at her own wedding.

Anya Chalotra’s performance as Jyoti in the aftermath of this is blistering: corrosively embittered and incandescent with fury, she whips up the villagers to action as easily as she kicks up the scarlet dust at her feet. Art Malik is unrecognisable from his young- smoothy days, but every bit as assured, as the inspector. Other mainstays include Sudha Bhuchar and Souad Faress.

It’s not as grim as it sounds: a Bollywood consciousness runs through it, with banter and a handful of musical numbers. that said, after such naturalistic portrayal of the bent cops’ savagery, it’s a bit much to show them ultimately dispatched by little more than interpretative dance. De Angelis'ss verse, also, sometimes jangles with easy rhymes instead of springing lightly. overall, though, it looks as if stratford east stands a decent chance of both maintaining and broadening its reputation.

Until 6 October at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London E15: 020-8534 0310,