At the beginning of The Husbands in the intimate space of the Soho Theatre, the darkened auditorium is filled with joyous screams, the pounding beat of tabla and sitar and the scent of exotic spices.
Welcome to the Indian village of Shaktipur, where women are worshipped as goddesses and are free to take multiple husbands in a polyandrous community.
Playwright Sharmila Chauhan creates a world where gender roles and power are reversed, but that reversal, ultimately, brings no relief for women from the demands made upon her by both a matriarchal society and the passive aggression of the husbands of the title.
The central character Aya (Syreeta Kumar) appears to enjoy complete control over her two husbands Sem (Rhik Samadder) and Omar (Mark Theodore) as the play opens. They dance attendance on her every need and we find them preparing for her third marriage to a wealthy landowner. This latest engagement is one that Aya, who is also an expert in agrarian science, hopes will expand the teaching of Shaktipur.
Omar is unhappy about a new man coming into his beloved Aya's life, but her first husband Sem is more accepting because of his dedication to the Shaktipur community, which is built around the strength and creative power of femininity.
The arrival of westerner Jerome Edwards (Phillip Edgerley) towards the second half of the play throws their carefully balanced world - which always seems to be on a knife's edge - into disarray. Some home truths that have disastrous consequences along with Aya's hitherto unsuspected weaknesses are exposed, and her power and ultimately her freedom come into question.
Chauhan explores whether there can ever be any real freedom for either men or women, whether society is matriarchal or patriarchal. By the end of the play it seems that deception and compromise resulting in an uneasy truce is the best that can be achieved.
This play challenges ideas about gender and, from the start, the men of the house taking on traditional female roles, cooking and cleaning, depicts a world where everything is upside down, leaving you unsure as to where their sympathies should lie.
The real star of this play is Syreeta Kumar who dominates the stage with her powerful presence. The Husbands raises some big and difficult issues, leaving you with the challenging question underlying the feminist critique of patriarchy: whether it is the biology of their own bodies rather than men that confines and imprisons women.
Chauhan has written a very entertaining and thought provoking drama, spiced with all the sensual pageantry of an Indian wedding.