Review: The Village (Theatre Royal Stratford East)
The first production in Nadia Fall's season as artistic director is an adaptation of a Lope de Vega play
Love, honour and the abuse of power are at the heart of The Village, a play adapted from Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Vega, the most influential playwright of the 17th century Golden Age of Spanish literature.
Itself based on a real-life incident in Castile, it's a story of a village taking collective responsibility for avenging rape – but only once called to arms by the wronged woman.
In her adaptation, April De Angelis has shifted the action to contemporary India, in the village of Sahaspur. Its peaceful and multicultural way of life is shattered by the arrival of brutal Inspector Gangwar and his men.
Taking pride in how quickly local women submit to his lust, Gangwar is playing the long game and stalking 16 year-old Jyoti, a bright, ambitious girl who very sensibly would rather plan and cook delicious meals with her friend Panna, than moon over boys.
But any semblance of restraint vanishes once Gangwar realises that Jyoti is in love with a local Muslim boy, Farooq (Scott Karim). The horrific consequences of his rage result in a village revolution that threatens to destabilise the entire country.
Art Malik's Gangwar has a sinister swagger throughout, and is particularly effective in his 'avuncular uncle' phase at the start of the play as he tries to finesse Jyoti into his house.
Anya Chalotra develops Jyoti beautifully through the production, from carefree girl to furious warrior princess. She's leading the fightback not just against oppression, but to reclaim her own right to life. Perhaps one of the most shocking moments in the play is the other women shunning her, commenting that she'd be better off dead than coming back to the village carrying the shame of rape.
Another outstanding performance comes from Rina Fatania as Panna, whose touching pursuit of Mango (Ameet Chana) is carried out with some very entertaining physical comedy.
The composition of some of the big set pieces is also impressive, with great work from movement director Polly Bennett, and fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown. It's a big cast to manoeuvre, and includes the National Youth Theatre Chorus, coordinated by Lauren Buckley.
The marvellous set design from Joanna Scotcher has impressive and seamless transitions, such as the smooth arrival of a lift that takes us from country to town in moments.
Like de Vega, De Angelis uses a variety of verse forms and rhyme patterns throughout the text, and while this works particularly well in some of the comic sequences, at times it can distract from the flow of emotion. Director Nadia Fall doesn't spare us, and the rape and torture scenes mean this production's age recommendation is 14 - plus.
But the play's ultimately uplifting message of renewal and justice, together with its strong cast (and live music throughout led by Nawarish Ali-Khan), make this a vibrant and committed production.