The Emergency was an extraordinary time in India’s history; A Fine Balance is an extraordinary book, Rohinton Mistry’s story of four people who cling to each other while their worlds fall apart a richly detailed, painful, but beautiful description of how life goes on in the hardest circumstances.
It’s only fitting, then, that Auckland Theatre Company and Prayas Theatre’s co-production of A Fine Balance, Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith’s adaptation of Mistry’s novel, is a quite extraordinary experience. Making fine use of Q Theatre’s in-the-round setting, it’s a pared-back retelling of the story, focusing on Dina (Rashmi Pilapitiya), a middle-aged widow in an unspecified city in India who takes in two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Omprakash, to work for her, and a lodger, Manek, who has been sent to the city by parents who want him to have opportunities outside their village. Around them the city’s people do their best to survive, Shankar the legless beggar on his trolley managed by Beggarmaster, Dina’s brother Nusswan, whose every offer of assistance has strings attached, Mrs. Gupta, Dina’s sole customer and the only way she keeps afloat.
With no stage set, the production stands or falls entirely on the performances of the cast. Lucky, then, that the cast are without exception outstanding. Mel Odedra has the very slightly manic energy of youth that is, gradually but never completely, worn down by the atrocious treatment Omprakash receives because of his caste. Mustaq Missouri’s Ishvar has the world-weariness of a man who, with no family of his own, has shouldered the responsibility of his nephew, while Mayen Mehta plays Manek as a weak, dependent young man, little more than a child, lost and a long way from home. Alongside the central foursome are Shankar (Ravikanth Gurunathan, relentlessly upbeat for a crippled beggar), Beggarmaster (Jatinder Singh, happy, cheerful, and just a tiny bit menacing) and an enjoyably smug Nusswan (Bala Murali Shingade) But it’s Rashmi Pilapitiya’s Dina who holds the group, and the story, together. By turns domineering toward her young charge Manek, imperious with her hired hands Om and Ishvar, supplicant before her employer Mrs Gupta (Kalyani Nagarajan) and pleading at the hands of the Landlord’s man Ibrahim (Dylan Thuraisingham), Dina struggles, and just barely manages, to maintain a few shreds of dignity, a strength that Pilapitiya finds in the character and depicts with an understated — and all the more powerful for it — grace.
Mistry’s original source material is long — the paperback I read twenty years ago ran to over 600 pages — and so the challenge of this production involves distilling it down to a two-hour play. Peripheral characters are cut — missing are Dina’s friend Zenobia, Manek’s friend Avinash, and a handful of others — while the action focuses almost entirely on Omprakash and Ishvar, and then in turn on Dina and Manek, and stays, except where it’s entirely necessary, in the City. Where the book had vast, sweeping scope, this production is tight and sharp, the staging sparse and uncluttered but strongly evocative. With no set to work with and only a smattering of props — a pair of Singer sewing machines locate us in Dina’s flat; beds tell us it’s a clinic, with the roofing from the slums repurposed as hospital screens. It’s a truly remarkable production, a fantastically immersive experience that creates a wonderful sense of place and time.
Mistry’s novel received well-deserved praise when it was released in 1995. Auckland Theatre Company’s production deserves just as much. It’s an outstanding production, and one that really should not be missed.
Performances almost daily until 6th July. Tickets available here.